It is too early to comprehend the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the global South, however, it is already exposing the profound structural inequalities and failure of the neoliberal state to protect basic human rights. In the face of the growing public health crisis, the government of Colombia continues to prioritise the interests of the financial and business sectors and sacrifice human lives on the altar of capitalism.
A national lockdown was decreed from March 24th until April 13th, with a recent extension until April 27th. So far, the numbers show a total of 2,709 positive cases and 100 deaths by April 12th, becoming the fourth most affected country in Latin America. However, various setbacks in the testing of citizens mean that these figures are likely to reveal only the tip of the iceberg.
The decision to impose a lockdown, while a widespread measure which protects those who are able to afford to place themselves into isolation, puts pressure on vulnerable groups, increasing their risks and suffering. In cities, the informal sector, small-scale and street vendors account for a majority of the Colombian economic system. They are now facing some of the most significant impacts, where lack of support means that they need to choose between dying of hunger or of COVID-19. Furthermore, police repression has put them at a crossroads with no way out.
Similarly, in rural areas, campesinos and social leaders face other problems. Many campesinos cannot sell their products due to lack of transportation, while social leaders are becoming easy targets for right-wing illegal armed groups, which are going door to door killing activists. Reports on both problems are alarming: On April 9th Reuters wrote: “Hungry Colombians hang red rags to ask for help during quarantine” https://lta.reuters.com/articulo/salud-coronavirus-colombia-pobreza-idLTAKCN21R39R ; and The Guardian on March 23rd: “Colombian death squads exploiting coronavirus lockdown to kill activists” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/colombian-groups-exploiting-coronavirus-lockdown-to-kill-activists
In the meantime, assistance from national and local governments has been insufficient and not properly distributed. A subsidy of £ 30 was approved to the vulnerable population and those living under the poverty line. However, as the national prosecutor reported, the money originally designated to provide support is being stolen from people’s hands, with criminal diversion totalling about £ 17 million, as La FM reported: https://www.lafm.com.co/colombia/contralor-denuncia-que-se-han-robado-80-mil-millones-en-ayudas-por-coronavirus-en-el-pais. Furthermore, there are no overarching rules governing the banking system. The banks are taking separate measures and usually at the request of the debtor. Measures include applying grace periods, redistribution of debts, or extensions, but these in no way alleviate the debt of the poor or put banks’ interests at risk in the long term. These can be seen in here: https://www.larepublica.co/finanzas/estas-son-las-medidas-que-ha-adoptado-la-banca-para-aliviar-el-bolsillo-2983330
The health system is another issue. It was vastly privatized during the 1990s with the creation of Law 100, which led to the outsourcing of the health services, minimizing the provision while continuing to receive mandatory service payments from the working class. The outcome today is an agglomeration of closed or dilapidated hospitals and health centres around the country (e.g. San Juan De Dios, Saludcoop and Medimas hospitals), lack of personnel for attendance, and precarious working conditions to face the emergency. There have also been recent reports of deaths of medical personnel https://www.eltiempo.com/salud/quien-era-el-segundo-medico-que-murio-por-coronavirus-en-colombia-483462. This situation is likely to aggravate the calamity and increase the number of dead people in the coming weeks, as EFE reported on April 1st https://www.efe.com/efe/america/sociedad/la-covid-19-desata-discriminacion-en-colombia-contra-quienes-salvan-vidas/20000013-4211172
COVID-19 is a global emergency but, as some have claimed, we are not all in the same boat. Perhaps we are in the same sea: some riding in yachts, some others in motorboats, some swimming with a life jacket on, but many others barely floating or not even managing it. Inequality, corruption and neoliberalisation are intensifying the effects of this emergency over the most vulnerable people of the global South, and Colombia is not an exception. In solidarity, later reports will continue on this topic.
Colombia Solidarity Campaign