Colombia and SARS-CoV-2: Will the storm pass?


In Colombia too, public life and the economy have been at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is, however, hope that the early measures taken to stem the pandemic will pay off in the medium and long term. The country is currently between hope and fear regarding the measures to ease the social and economic lockdown in place since March.

Main traffic road during quarantine in the capital city Bogotá
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The main thoroughfare in the capital city of Bogotá during lockdown.

The Easter and Whitsun holidays are over, but most people are still staying at home. There has been a country-wide quarantine in place in Colombia since 25 March. Before both holidays, the government decided to extend its lockdown: initially, until 1 June as part of a “obligatory and preventive quarantine”, and since then as part of an “intelligent quarantine”, permitting a gradual opening of the economy. During the first two months, only in exceptional cases – such as shopping, urgent visits to the doctor and banking – have people been able to leave their homes; the government has allowed gradual economic opening for some sectors (among them construction and manufacture) since the end of April and additional sectors have been added since May. Economic life, however, continues by and large to be on hold, with restaurants, bars and clubs closed and social events banned. For the coming weeks, however, further measures to re-open and activate the economy are planned, depending on the development of infection numbers and hospital capacity. The consequences for the country are still almost impossible to predict. There is, however, hope that the early measures taken to stem the pandemic will pay off in the medium and long term. But the economic impact is already hitting the country.

The virus came as a stowaway from Spain and Italy 

According to a study published by Columbia’s National Institute of Health (Instituto Nacional de Salud, INS) at the end of March, the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is most likely to have entered Colombia from Spain on 26 February. However, the first case of an infection in the country was not medically confirmed and made public knowledge until 6 March. A young Colombian woman caught the virus when travelling in Italy and complained of symptoms upon her return. The result of the test was positive. Since the first case came to light three months ago, the Colombian ministry of health has confirmed about 35,000 cases (including about 1,100 deaths). Compared to the rest of the region (especially Brazil, Peru, Chile, Mexico and Ecuador), then, Colombia is doing relatively well. Unlike their counterparts in other countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador, the Colombian authorities reacted quickly and decisively:

  • on 13 March, a week after the first case was reported, a 14-day preventative quarantine was ordered for all people entering the country from China, Italy, Spain and France. 
  • then on 16 March, schools, kindergartens and universities were closed.
  • on 17 March, the country borders were closed.
  • on 20 March, two weeks after the first case was reported, many cities, including the capital Bogotá, plus Medellín and Cali, ordered lockdown. 
  • President Duque followed suit on the same day, announcing a country-wide quarantine to begin on 25 March – this was initially scheduled to end on 13 April, but it has been extended several times until June.
  • when quarantine began, all national passenger flights were grounded; two days before that, international flights had been stopped from entering Colombia. National air traffic will remain grounded probably until July, while international air traffic will be discontinued until the end of August. the economic state of emergency, which was declared in March, has been extended until 31 August, allowing the government to decide on and impose economic and social restrictions and to adopt economic and budgetary measures directly.

Has the national quarantine prevented a worse outcome (so far)?

According to estimates in a study by the University of Bern on 18 March, the number of infections in the country would have risen to 613,037 without protective measures to contain the virus, assuming an R value of 2.5 per person (with an estimated 4,573 deaths, 36,782 cases requiring intensive care treatment and 122,607 cases requiring hospitalisation). Again according to the study, in the event of the early identification of suspected cases, the isolation of patients, quarantine orders and other social distancing measures, the number of infections could be limited to 28,600 (with 213 deaths, 1,716 cases requiring intensive care treatment and 5,720 cases requiring hospitalisation). On the basis of its own calculations, the government feared that the number of infections could rise as high as 3.9 million without restrictive measures (13.8%, with 4.7% developing a serious or life-threatening course of illness). The numbers of infections during the first week of June seem to confirm the calculation; the number of deaths, on the other hand, has been five times higher so far.   

These alarming prognoses and the daily news of spiking new infection rates in Europe prompted the government to take rapid action from mid-March, to prevent the healthcare system from becoming swamped – despite the likely devastating impact this would have on the Colombian economy. 

Buying time to avoid overwhelming the fragile health system 

The aim of decreeing lockdown was to buy valuable time and keep the infection curve flat. Across the entire country, public and private hospitals had only around 85,000 beds at the start of the pandemic (1.7 beds for every 100,000 inhabitants: by way of comparison, the figure in Germany is 29.2), including around 5,346 intensive care beds (1,173 of which are in the capital city). In Bogotá, the historic, 413-room Hotel Tequendama has been converted into a hospital facility for up to 700 people and the halls of the conference centre into a hospital accommodating up to 5000, to take the pressure of the city’s hospitals in the coming weeks. Currently, more than 40% of about 680 intensive care beds in Bogotá available for Covid-19 patients are occupied, causing fears among the authorities that occupation might rise to more than 70% within the next weeks. The government has also made efforts to increase the number of tests over the next few weeks. Since the first case, around 330,000 tests have been analysed. It is hoped that rapid tests will help to create a more comprehensive picture of new infection cases. In total, the healthcare system will receive a financial shot in the arm of 2,71 billion pesos (around €660 million), so that it can prepare for possible waves of new infections in the coming weeks.

Informal employment, growing unemployment, plummeting oil prices and new debts 

The economic consequences of lockdown the population are enormous. Some 47% of working adults earn their living in the informal sector. Every month, the quarantine is costing the country 4.5% to 6.1% of its annual gross domestic product. The unemployment rate, which stood at around 10% one year ago and at 12.2% of the end of March, rose to almost 20% in May. Colombia’s minister for employment appealed to businesses not to lay their staff off. Inflation is already as high after three months as it was last year after twelve. The plummeting oil price is also affecting the economy: in March, the cost of extracting it was higher than the world market price. The country’s finance minister has already announced that taking on new debt is the only way to cover the financial burden caused by the pandemic.

Financial support measures: a drop in the ocean?

The national government has announced a range of support measures, including: a one-off payment of €45 to 3 million low-income families, including those in the informal sector; special payments for beneficiaries of state social programmes; a one-off special payment for pensioners; a deferral of water and electricity charges for low-income individuals and families for the next few months; a loan programme for businesses (in particular, to allow them to continue to pay wages); food provision measures for low-income individuals; VAT rebates for low-income individuals; reconnection to the drinking water system for 1 million people (around 200,000 households) who had failed to pay their water bills; mortgage and loan repayment holidays for the next few months; guaranteeing bank loans for small and medium-sized businesses; simplified access to contributions paid into the unemployment fund. On top of this, cities and communities are also providing financial support to poor and socially vulnerable families. The city of Bogotá, for instance, has been providing a one-off payment of between €45 and €60 in immediate assistance to 500,000 socially vulnerable families and those living in poverty for the first month of quarantine. Due to the prolongation of the lockdown, aid programmes have been extended, too. There are already controversial discussions on how the costs will be financed and split between the national government and local authorities. The political opposition has recently proposed an unconditional basic income for three months during the pandemic.

The fight against the virus as a political opportunity for Colombia’s President?

Although surveys have shown that around 75% of citizens consider the quarantine to be a necessary step, they are feeling uneasy about the future. President Duque, with whom 70% of citizens were dissatisfied three months ago, according to several surveys, has now been given the opportunity to stage himself politically as a crisis manager and gain new trust. A recent survey showed that around 61.7% of respondents were satisfied with the President’s efforts to tackle the pandemic. The mayors of cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, who urged the President put the country into quarantine and, later, to extend it, are doing even better. At the same time, the Colombian Parliament is conspicuous by the absence of its members. After the end of the parliamentary recess which began in early January, the new session of the Congress was supposed to begin on 17 March. The Parliament has not advanced significantly with its discussions due to disagreements as to whether it should do so in person or virtually, as well as technical problems with the use of digital platforms.

Violence against social leaders, domestic violence and migration provide more social and societal challenges 

As well as the public health and economic challenges facing the country, it also has many other structural problems to deal with, which have been heightened by the coronavirus crisis. Since the beginning of lockdown, there have been numerous attacks by illegal armed groups on social leaders in various regions of the country. More than 100 social leaders and activists have been killed so far this year. Prisons are full to overflowing, social distancing is impossible. Although the number of thefts and murders (including so called feminicidos) have fallen in the cities due to quarantine, there has been a sharp increase in cases of domestic violence. The use of public hotlines for women to report cases of physical and psychological abuse has increased during the first weeks of the pandemic. Finally, the country must decide how it can provide financial support in the framework of the economic support programmes to most of the more than 1.8 million migrants from Venezuela, who fled their country following the sustained political and economic crisis in recent years, whilst countering xenophobic tendencies in sections of the population. All of this means that Colombia will continue to experience turbulent times during the next months. It remains to be seen how the Colombian government and society will steer their way out of the stormy waters of these numerous difficulties and into calmer seas.

The article has first been published on Translation by Alison Frankland.