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A mile-long line for free food in Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities



Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancouver, a photojournalist, drive more than 3,700 miles to explore the resumption of the European continent following corona virus shutdowns. Read all their deliveries.

GENEVA – The first people arrived before 7 p.m.

At 16, more than 100 people were waiting in the dark outside the ice hockey stadium.

At 7 o’clock the line stretched more than a mile, heading north to the river, then west down the riverbank, then around a sports center parking lot, then past the squash courts, boxing club, theater, under Pont de Saint-Georges, before doubling back. a corniche by the river.

By early afternoon last Saturday, nearly 3,000 residents of Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities, had filtered through the stadium to get a packed lunch worth about $ 25. Some carried infants. Some lay in wheelchairs. Some had been waiting for more than six hours.

In medical terms, Geneva has not gotten as much grip on the coronavirus crisis as other areas in Western Europe. In the city and its surrounding suburbs, fewer than 300 inhabitants have died in a population of half a million.

But financially, the crisis has been devastating for Geneva’s underclass – the undocumented and underpaid workers who have often been forgotten in a city that is better known to its bankers, watchmakers and US officials.

Thousands of people working in the shadows of the Swiss economy lost their jobs overnight in March, as hotels, restaurants and families fired their undocumented cleaners and maid in response to a lockdown implemented by the Central Swiss government.

State aid could not be drawn, and most were then forced to rely on charity to survive. In the end, this demand led volunteers and city officials to set up a weekly food bank at the ice hockey stadium near the river.

“If you wanted pictograms Geneva, what would you say?” said Laura Cotton, a Swiss-British hospital decorator who volunteers at the stadium. “Money money money. And okay – cheese and chocolate.”

“But Covid has shown the back,” Cotton added.

Coronavirus infection rates have been declining in Geneva in recent weeks, allowing authorities to significantly ease social distance restrictions.

But the economic impact on the city’s poorest remains difficult.

Sukhee Shinendorj, a 38-year-old from Mongolia, was already living on the hook of poverty even before the coronavirus reached Switzerland. He earned about $ 1,600 a month as restaurant cleaners – barely enough to feed his two children in expensive Geneva.

Then in March, the restaurant closed down where he worked, causing his manager to fire him. Now Mr. Fears Shinendorj to lose his apartment and rely on the stadium parts for food.

On Saturday, he woke up at 1pm and walked two miles to the stadium to try to hit the line. But several people were already waiting.

“Disaster,” Shinendorj said of his situation. “It’s a disaster.”

Behind him in the dark, a giant Rolex logo from the watchmaker’s headquarters shone across the street.

The scenes at the stadium have been debilitating for some geniuses, who were for the first time forced to acknowledge deep social inequalities that they previously ignored or dismissed.

Geneva is home to several arms from the UN, including the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the ethos of the institutions has not been fully integrated into the city at large.

While Swiss citizens and businesses received financial support during the government shutdown, undocumented foreign workers were left to take care of themselves.

Even foreigners with official work permits were cautious about applying for state aid, afraid that it would make it more difficult for them to renew their permits in the future. Others said they were simply unaware of the possibility.

Nubiany Rocha, a pregnant Brazilian baby girl, arrived at the stadium at 5pm and drove her 8-month-old daughter’s carriage. Rocha had a valid work permit until 2022, she said, but did not know it could make her eligible for state aid.

A group of experienced activists first discovered Geneva’s need for food aid. In late March, campaigns from the Caravane De Solidarit√©, a group originally founded in response to the refugee crisis in 2015, began distributing food on the street.

But it led to the arrest of one of the group’s leaders for making social distance regulations more difficult.

Following a public relapse, the city authorities intervened and allowed several groups to distribute food from several dismissed schools. But as the lines outside the schools continued to be extended, it was clear that a bigger place was needed.

So in early May, city officials allowed the volunteers to base themselves on Patinoire des Vernets, an ice rink just outside the city center.

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders has joined the effort and brought their expertise from countless war zones to help manage the operation.

“It’s very strange,” Dr. Roberta Petrucci, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, who lives nearby.

“I never thought I would see this a few hundred yards where I live,” Dr. Petrucci, who is more used to working in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Congo and Liberia.

The worsening effect of the economic collapse on the city’s poor is illustrated by the number of food packages left at the stadium last Saturday – 300 more than last week.

At a nearby homeless shelter, set up by city authorities at the beginning of the crisis, staff said they initially welcomed people who were already living on the streets. But now they are protecting a new type of visitor: People who have lost their homes as a result of the economic side effects of the pandemic.

The number is still small – only about 20 people fall into this category, or 10 percent of the residents are in shelter. But most of them came in the last two weeks.

The stadium awards also tell a more hopeful story about the city, says Charlemagne Hernandez, one of the founders of the Caravane De Solidarité.

The major operation, which relies almost entirely on volunteers and donations, is the product of decades of activism in the city, which has created a more tolerant culture than in other Swiss cantons, Hernandez said.

On a Friday night, donors to the food bank included some of the city’s wealthiest residents, who brought their donations to the stadium in the tribes of their Porsches, Teslas and Mercedes.

“It has something to do with the humanitarian tradition in Geneva,” Hernandez said. “That’s what we do better than any other Swiss city.”

When he left the stadium, shortly after 8 o’clock, Shinendorj, the Mongolian purifier, had a bag of food, but still no job.

He said he planned to spend the next 12 hours walking through the city and going door-to-door to ask for work.

“In the past the sun was shining,” he said. “Now the sky is black.”


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