The imaginary landscape of Macondo where solitude can last 100 years and immortalized in the words of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez is under threat from an invisible enemy: coronavirus.
Baptized “Macondo” by Colombia’s most famous literary son, the territory where it is located, is all too real and magical, covering the Magdalena River delta, expanse of banana-growing lowlands and foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
With settlements recalling a European and indigenous past, at the heart of Macondo is Aracataca, a merchant trading post that grew in size to have a church, ice-making factory, and other public utilities which for “Gabo,” son of the telegraphist, ignited a life-long fascination with communications and world beyond the railway station. Macondo is part of the tourism trail of the Colombian coast with many graceful landmarks from the Republican era still standing, the more humble and dilapidated – including the ice-making factory – cleared to make way for functional architecture.
As Aracataca, Sevilla, Río Frio, Soledad and Fundación joined the modern transportation grid of the coast, with Barranquilla and Cartagena the urban magnets for jobs and commerce, for many Colombians, these towns maintain a near-mythical status given their direct association to the early life and writings of Garciá Márquez.
When the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the country on March 6, the epicenter of the contagion was Bogotá, given 10 million inhabitants and main entry point of the country for international visitors. This trend has continued for three months, even as the country was placed under strict quarantine. With intense outbreaks of COVID-19 in Cali and Leticia, departmental capitals of Valle de Cauca and Amazonas, displacing Bogotá temporarily as the city with the highest single-day increase in new cases, Cartagena and Barranquilla became increasingly vulnerable to the advance of the virus given that these cities grew from their ports to absorb countless workers and families fleeing violence in the countryside.
Despite desperate slum conditions, Colombia’s coastal cities were a safe haven during the most violent decades of the country’s internal conflict, and as the displaced population grew, investment by mayoralties in expanding access to essential public services, from drinking water to community health posts, was derailed to make way for large-scale infrastructure. The most life-threatening disease that afflicted the coast before the arrival of coronavirus has no scientific name but also begins with “c”: corruption.
The powerful political clans of the coast – or caciques as they are called – have raided the coffers of the state for decades, rerouting much-needed funds for displaced farmers and land restitution to agro-industrial projects. Cartels dedicated to institutionalized corruption have sprouted in every economic sector of the coast, plundering Barranquilla’s electricity grid through ElectriCaribe, Cartagena’s oil refining capacity with Reficar and rural development projects through Agro Ingreso Seguro. From depriving impoverished children of daily food rations to establishing a “hemophilia cartel” to steal funds destined to the afflicted, corruption has indirectly claimed more lives on the coast than infectious tropical viruses, among them, malaria and zika.
Coronavirus has exposed the abandonment of the coast’s healthcare system, and as the government scrambles to supply hospitals in Barranquilla with ventilators and PPE for frontline workers, intensive care wards are collapsing with patients. And in communities across Macondo, including Soledad, Malambo and Galapa, “magic realism” has been supplanted by the reality of tragedy and sorrow.
On Tuesday, as new cases of coronavirus climbed by 1,868 to put the national total at 54,931, 75 additional deaths were also confirmed by the Ministry of Health, of which 32 occurred on the coast. Barranquilla and the department Atlántico now account for 22% of Colombia’s cases.
After Sunday – when the country reported the highest per-day increase in new positives (2,193) and 75 deaths – and Monday, when Barranquilla more than doubled Bogotá with new patients (798 compared to 368), the situation across the nation regained some level of stability on Tuesday, with Bogotá leveling at 435, followed by Barranquilla with 272. On a positive note, the Ministry of Health has confirmed that 20,366 patients of the virus have recovered.