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

Donated food was packed into nearly 3,000 bags at a repurposed ice rink in Geneva this month. In economic terms, the crisis has been ruinous for the city’s underclass.
Donated food was packed into nearly 3,000 bags at a repurposed ice rink in Geneva this month. In economic terms, the crisis has been ruinous for the city’s underclass.NYT

GENEVA — The first people arrived before 2 a.m.

By 4 a.m., more than 100 people stood waiting in the darkness outside the ice hockey stadium.

By 7 a.m., the line stretched for more than 1 mile, heading north to the river, then west down the riverbank, then all around a sports center parking lot, then past the squash courts, the boxing club, the theater, under the Pont de Saint-Georges, before doubling back up a riverside corniche.

By early afternoon last Saturday, nearly 3,000 residents of Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities, had filtered through the stadium to receive a food parcel worth about $25. Some carried babies. Some were in wheelchairs. Some had waited for more than six hours.

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In medical terms, Geneva has not been as gripped by the coronavirus crisis as other areas of Western Europe. In the city and its surrounding suburbs, fewer than 300 residents have died in a population of half a million.

But in economic terms the crisis has been ruinous for Geneva’s underclass — the unauthorized and underpaid workers often forgotten about in a city better known for bankers, watchmakers, and UN 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 cleaners and maids who were living in the country illegally in response to a lockdown enforced by the central Swiss government.

Unable to draw on state support, most were then forced to rely on charity to survive. Ultimately, that demand led volunteers and city officials to set up a weekly food bank at the ice hockey stadium near the river.

“If you wanted to pictogram Geneva, what would you put?” said Laura Cotton, a Swiss-British hospital decorator who volunteers at the stadium. “Money, money, money. And, OK — cheese and chocolate.”

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“But COVID has showed the flip side,” Cotton added.

The coronavirus infection rate has plummeted in Geneva in recent weeks, allowing authorities to markedly ease social distancing restrictions.

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

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

Then, in March, the restaurant where he worked shut, prompting his boss to fire him. Now Shinendorj fears losing his apartment and relies on the stadium handouts for food.

On Saturday, he woke up at 1 a.m. and walked 2 miles to the stadium to try and beat the line. But there were already several people waiting.

“Catastrophe,” Shinendorj said of his situation.

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

The scenes at the stadium have been jarring for some Genevans, forced for the first time to recognize the social inequalities that they previously ignored or dismissed. Geneva is home to several arms of the United Nations, including the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the ethos of those institutions has not been entirely embedded within the city at large.

While Swiss citizens and businesses received financial support during the lockdown from authorities, foreign workers living in the country illegally were left to fend for themselves.

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International aid group Doctors Without Borders has joined the effort, bringing its expertise from war zones to help manage the operation.

“It’s very strange,” said Dr. Roberta Petrucci, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. “I never thought I’d see this a few hundred meters from where I live,” said Petrucci, who is more accustomed to working in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Congo, and Liberia.