At the one-year milestone since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Bogotá the pandemic has claimed 60,503 lives and infected more than 2.27 million.
On March 6, 2020, a Colombian student became the first official COVID-19 case after the patient was admitted to the Fundación Santa Fe hospital in Bogotá with symptoms of respiratory illness. According to health authorities, the young woman imported the virus from her residence in Milan, Italy. Few Colombians going about their daily lives would imagine how this virus could impact their lives, despite an early warning shout-out from the World Health Organization (WHO) for the global community to expect a “major disruption.”
With daily cases below 200 during most of March, the national government swiftly enacted the Health Emergency, making face mask-wearing obligatory, as well as social distancing in all public areas. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, following recent draconian measures with the first European lockdowns, announced a four-day quarantine “drill” (March 19 – 23) that coincided with a holiday weekend. The temporary measure was drawn-out an additional 24-hours to coincide with the government’s declaration of strict quarantine for an initial 30 days.
The decree embarked Colombia on one of the world’s longest lockdowns – 157 days – until gradually key sectors of the nation’s economy were allowed to reactivate under strict bio-security protocols. But for the large informal work sector, recovery was near impossible with mobility restrictions, limited hours for commerce to operate and restaurants and bars shuttered-up, as well as all social gatherings banned indefinitely.
The lockdown took its toll on mental health, lost income and jobs. Colombia’s GDP plunged into historic negative terrain and unemployment almost doubled from 12 percent to 21. For youngsters, education was stumped with stay-at-home orders. Those with access to computers could continue with virtual classes, but for millions of students from low-income families without access to technology, basic education in 2020 remained a distant prospect.
Already desperate economic conditions for those surviving on the minimum monthly wage of COP$877,000 pesos (US$300), or less, the strict lockdown resulted in red cloths draped over windows and doors to alert authorities that there was no food on the family table. The district and national government offered unprecedented relief aid to the neediest, subsidies for mortgage-owners, and low-interest credit lines for small businesses.
But as the nation got deeper in debt, getting the pandemic under control was the number one policy priority, from securing the purchase of thousands of artificial ventilators on the open market to upgrading the nation’s medical centers and ICU wards. Even though Bogotá has remained at the epicenter of the pandemic during the last 12 months, registering almost 30% of all daily cases in the country, severe outbreaks occurred in Cali, Cartagena, Leticia, Barranquilla, Riohacha and Medellín.
Five months into the pandemic, Colombia was peaking with the first wave of infection, the highest daily record in new cases – 13,056 – occurring August 19. But President Iván Duque, Minister of Health Fernando Ruíz and Bogotá Mayor Claudia López warned that there would be a second wave and possibly a third before April 2021. The second wave was much more accentuated than the first, accompanied by the spread of the Brazilian variant and confirmed by the López to be circulating in the capital.
The second wave peaked on January 15 with 21,078 cases, and accompanied by evening curfews in Bogotá, weekend quarantine and prolongation of the identify card restriction Pico y cédula. The second wave decelerated quickly, and by mid-February, the country was adding on average of 3,300 daily cases, while at the same time, the numbers of recovered patients increased substantially, lowering to active cases in the 30,000 range.
The arrival of vaccines from two pharmaceuticals – Pfizer and Sinovac – now totals more than 2 million, the most recent shipment of 1.5 million delivered this weekend through the WHOS’s COVAX program. President Duque has emphasized that with 66 million vaccines the country will complete inoculation of 70% of the population, and an investment – to date – of COP$2.4 billion (US$800 million).
Among many challenges facing the vaccine roll-out are transporting them across topographically diverse terrains, from Amazon rainforest to desert plains or remote Andean communities. The COVAX vaccines were delivered throughout the weekend for Stage Two doctors and nurses not in direct contact with coronavirus patients, as well as post-graduate medical students.
As the rate of vaccination increases – 296,240 administered in two weeks – the government is facing increasing pressure – and criticism – to decentralize the National Vaccine Program and allow citizens to pay their way for the vaccine of their choice. Mayor López has even supported a private-sector initiative to back local drug companies with the manufacture of a coronavirus vaccine, following the example of many developed nations, including Canada. López’s proposal may be well-intentioned, but far from realistic given the timeline to reach herd immunity before the end of this year.
On Monday, Colombia added 2,205 new coronavirus cases, lowest per-day increase since June 15, 2020.