How coronavirus is affecting Colombia

29 June 2020

Peace building in Magdalenda Medio

As part of CAFOD's Hands On Magdalena Medio project, peace building workshops were run in schools across the Magdalena Medio region. Young people were taught about avoiding a life of violence, and were empowered to find peaceful solutions to the conflict. 

Colombia has experienced more than 50 years of armed conflict, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions displaced.

In 2016, a peace agreement was reached with FARC, the largest guerrilla group at the time. Since then, Colombia faces the continued threat of violence, climate change, and human rights violations.

Now, AfroColombians, indigenous groups and other communities – many of whom have been displaced – are dealing with the challenges of coronavirus and lockdown.

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Ulrike Beck, CAFOD’s Programme Officer for Colombia, shares some of the challenges the country is facing, and how CAFOD is responding.

What was the situation in Colombia before coronavirus hit?

Conflict in Colombia is ongoing, and the effects are felt throughout the country. Violence, including gender-based violence is still prevalent, and civilians often get caught in clashes. During the years of armed conflict, there were many grave human rights abuses, and it is estimated that over 120,000 people were victims of forced disappearance.

Colombia has the highest number of displaced people in the world. 7.9 million people have been forced to flee their homes – a figure which according to the UNHCR is higher than Syria.

Colombia is almost five times the size of the UK, and is very diverse. It is a country with great inequality. In remote rural areas there is a lack basic infrastructure, and medical care is often not available unless people travel a long distance.

How has the government responded to coronavirus?

Very early on the government imposed very strict lockdown measures. In most places just one person per household was allowed out once a week. Children and the elderly were not allowed out at all.

This has caused many problems, as many people rely on income from informal work. If people can’t leave their home, they can’t work. If they can’t work, they can’t buy food.

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus?

Coronavirus is affecting Colombia in many different ways. The number of cases is still rising, and where health care was available before it has either collapsed or is close to collapse.

Initially the main impact was hunger and lack of food. Before the pandemic, 30% of people lived in poverty. This has increased massively and unemployment has risen sharply. There are fears of a looming hunger crisis.

Displaced persons who are seeking temporary shelter face difficulties in accessing clean water, which is so important for both health and hygiene purposes. Many people live in confined spaces, which causes an increased risk of the virus spreading. 

The Amazon, which makes up 40% of Colombia, has seen the highest number of cases per inhabitants. Most of it is very remote and hard to reach, which is a huge challenge. There is almost no health system in place in this region, and the medical facilities are not equipped to treat people with the virus. 

In some regions, illegal armed actors have been killing those suspected to be infected with the virus.

How has CAFOD responded to coronavirus in Colombia?

We have responded with our local partners, mainly through the church, who work side by side with the most vulnerable communities. It is through the church that we are able to reach remote areas, often where no other agencies can reach. With your donations, we have helped our partners to adapt existing projects to respond to the crisis. This includes:

  • Using radio programmes to broadcast messages with information on the prevention of the virus.
  • Distributing food and hygiene kits to vulnerable people in the Chocó region - one of the poorest regions in Colombia and home to the majority of AfroColombians.
  • Urging the Colombian government to step up their response to water shortages caused by coal mining in the La Guajira region. The lack of water poses a serious health risk, and many children have already died.

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Across Colombia many people face the choice between buying soap, or buying food, which is where we step in.

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