COVID-19: Facing challenges on many fronts, Colombia taps the military to enforce quarantines

  • Cases of COVID-19 have snowballed in Colombia, from a single patient that brought the virus from Italy in March 6 to 1,065 cases and 17 deaths by April 1. Colombia has imposed a shelter-in-place order. 
  • Still, many people are venturing out onto the streets, either from ignorance or necessity.
  • Colombia has deployed the military. Fines are being doled out in large numbers and those who break the order face prison terms.

CAJICA – Colombia. The small town of Cajica lies about 20 kilometers away north from Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. It is a dorm-city well connected with other towns nearby. Here, agriculture, comfort and a modest way of living blend together to create unique lifestyles for some 81,000 inhabitants. Like the rest of the country, Cajica is now under a mandatory shelter-in-place order.

Late last month, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque closed all the borders, shut down all airports and put about 50 million people under mandatory shelter-in-place order to fight COVID-19.

The coronavirus that first surfaced in Wuhan, China, was confirmed to be present in Colombia on March 6 after a patient flew from Milan, Italy. As elsewhere in the world, the pandemic disease spread exponentially in Colombia. By April 1 there were 1,065 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.

The lockdown of the population will last until at least April 13 and is hitting the economy hard. As a double whammy, oil is one of Colombia’s most important exports and oil prices have cratered as a result of a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the three largest producers in the world – the U.S. is the third. 

Adding to Colombia’s challenges is an influx of more than a million migrants from Venezuela, many of whom are dependent on Colombia’s social services, have day-to-day jobs, insecure housing and spotty access to health care and even food.

Colombia has deployed humanitarian aid across the country in a race against hunger. With over 46 percent of the labor force working informaly and an unemployment rate of 12.2%, the challenge for the government is to keep 50 million people at home but also fed. As challenges go, it is unprecedented.

“For me it is very important that we all understand that the priority is to protect the life and health of Colombians,” Duque said on March 21. “The second, to protect the most vulnerable, we are going to overcome this storm and this global crisis, but we are going to overcome it without hunger and protecting those who need them most,” he said.

Relief packages worth billions of Colombian pesos have been announced and both food and staples have been deployed on the ground to the most in need. Under the current orders, one citizen per household is allowed onto the streets twice per week and for a couple of hours only, to buy food, medicines or go to the bank. 

That is the reality here in Cajica, where life has taken on a surreal sheen. 

Unfortunately, across the country, the shelter-in-place order is often defied, despite the fact that breaking the quarantine can lead to costly fines or even eight years in prison. With a weak judiciary system and a lack of effective police enforcement –  police have been ordered to sing and dance on the streets to entertain people from their balconies – enforcing the shelter-in-place order may prove difficult. 

Adding to the challenges, many in Colombia believe COVID-19 is not all that harmful. 

There are many, many people still on the streets trying to make a living, neglecting the national shelter-in-place order through ignorance or sheer need. 

One man believed to have been infected with COVID-19 attacked eight police officer earlier this week, using only his mouth. He spit on police after being transported to a hospital in the town of Sabaneta, Antioquia.

Cajica is one of nine towns in the department of Cundinamarca, where Governor Nicole Garcia has deployed the military to enforce the shelter-in-place order. Deploying the military is a big step. In Colombia, poeple don’t mess around with the army. And even those who might dare under other circumstances would think about it twice under the current circumstances. Soldiers are already fighting an invisible enemy that hides in the bodies of careless people.

In Cajica, where three cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed, as many as 87 citizens have been fined for breaking the order. Across Cundinamarca, 2,093 citizens have been fined for breaching the quarantine, since March 25.

“Permanent patrolling will be in place to prevent people from going outside,” Garcia tweeted while announcing that the army along with the Group of Special Operations of the Police were being deployed in the region.

“In Cundinamarca, quarantine is respected or respected, we are going to make it in good terms or we are going make it happen with sanctions. We are not going to allow the irresponsibility of a few to endanger the lives of thousands,” Garcia said (Spanish).