Expat Diary: What is Life Like in Colombia During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Nancy Kiernan – IL Colombia Correspondent

(Originally published on March 22, Updated on March 31)

Restrictions and quarantines have escalated to where we are now in a mandatory countrywide quarantine that will last until April 13, 2020. However, Colombia´s President Duque announced we should expect this to be extended as health and government officials continue to monitor the progression of COVID-19. The quarantine for people aged 70 and older is until May 30, 2020. Effective Monday, March 23, all international flights into and out of Colombia were suspended for 30 days. Land and sea borders are also closed. No one, including Colombian citizens and residents, will be able to enter or leave the country for 30 days. Domestic flights and intercity bus routes are not running. The police and military have roadblocks on all major highways to prevent unauthorized people from traveling and to ensure the smooth transport of food, medicine, and other vital products.

One hour into the quarantine the people in Medellín from their balconies were clapping, whistling, cheering, and flashing their lights to show support for the healthcare workers and for solidarity against the spread of COVID-19. I posted a video on the International Living Facebook page, which you can watch here.

What is Daily Life Like at the Moment in Colombia?

The year 2020 will be known for adding the term “social distancing” to the vernacular. I am staying in touch with my family and friends in the U.S. and around the world via Skype, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

We are allowed to send one person per household to the grocery store, pharmacy or bank. In many cities, they have instituted a “pico y cédula” schedule for these basic errands. You are allowed out based on the last digit of your cédula (national ID card) or in the case of a visitor, your passport. For example, if your ID ends in a one or two your day to shop is Monday. The idea is to balance the number of people on the street and in the stores for these necessary errands.

I live in Medellín and they have not instituted “pico y cédula” here yet. I went to the grocery store last Saturday, eight days into the quarantine, to buy some fresh produce, eggs, and bread. The store was quiet, orderly and well-stocked. All employees, and many of the shoppers, were wearing masks and gloves. The shelves were fully stocked, there was no panic, people were not hoarding items, and I did not notice any unusual price increases. As a matter of fact, there was actually a 10% discount on toilet paper. By the way, I never understood why people in the U.S. were hoarding toilet paper for a respiratory virus. The store put down the yellow and black striped caution tape on the floor in the checkout line at 6 feet intervals so that people waiting in line would keep the appropriate distance. They also did this outside the store in case the number of people wanting to shop exceeds the number allowed in.

Every night at 8 p.m. the people in cities all over Colombia go out on their balconies or front steps and clap, whistle, cheer and flash their lights to show support for the healthcare workers and solidarity against the spread of the virus.

Every night, a woman who lives in the building behind me serenades the neighborhood with two to three songs via a karaoke machine. She has a lovely voice. I wish I knew who it is. Last night she asked everyone to join her and sing Happy Birthday for all those who are celebrating birthdays but cannot be with family and friends.

Banks are encouraging people to use mobile apps and online banking to pay bills instead of going into the bank. Many branches are closed and have notes on the doors indicating where the nearest branch that is open is located in case you must do some banking that cannot be accomplished online.

Restaurants are trying to keep their employees busy with work by offering delivery services. In Medellín the meals are delivered by Rappi or other motorcycle delivery services. You must pay by credit or debit card directly with the restaurant. Deliveries are not allowed inside the apartment buildings. You must walk to the portería (security entrance) and pick up your food.

The police are patrolling the streets to make sure people are staying inside their homes and issuing fines to those who violate the quarantine.

What are you Doing to Keep Busy During Lockdown?

Besides writing articles for International Living, I am taking time to focus on things I haven’t had time to do before, thinking of ways to improve myself (learn something new) and catching up on TV series on Netflix that I never watched. I am probably one of the very few people on the planet who NEVER watched an episode of Game of Thrones. Well, that will change over the next few weeks.

I am fortunate that I live in Medellín where the weather is spring-like every day. I have a large terraza that overlooks the city, so I can sit out there and read, listen to music and podcasts on my iPod, and relax in the fresh air. I realized that I significantly underestimated my consumption of chocolate!

My closets will be cleaned out. My emails will be sorted and purged. My kitchen “junk drawer” will become just a “drawer”. I will make a few batches of “from scratch” spaghetti sauce and freeze it.

The expat community is staying in touch with each other on Facebook and having Skype and Messenger video chats so we can see and talk to each other. Spirits are good now and we are checking in on each other to make sure everyone is okay.

I am trying to limit my social media time and how much news I read and see. I would like to say that I am exercising in my apartment, but that would be a lie. Every morning I have the intention to do it, but I haven´t done it yet. I need the accountability of going to a class, and of course, my pilates classes are closed.

What you Can and Can’t do During Lockdown

Grocery stores and pharmacies are open with the caveat that only one person per family enters the store. Banks are open, but are limiting the number of people in the building at one time. People working in the healthcare sector, public service, and transportation sectors are allowed to work. Some yoga studios are offering classes via webcams on their Facebook pages. This is a great way for people to relieve some of the stress.

Closed during lockdown:

Schools, universities, gyms, public events, movie theaters, sporting events, concert halls, restaurants (take out or delivery only), bars, cafés.

Is Public Transportation Still Running?

Taxis, buses, and metro are open and running but only for people in the approved sectors of employment to commute and for the limited general public to go to the grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks.

The metro made several videos about the measures it is taking to keep the buses, trains, and stations clean and disinfected. They also are giving proper handwashing demonstrations to passengers.

Is Colombia Prepared for the Virus?

The World Health Organization ranks Colombia’s healthcare system at #22 of the 191 countries it surveys. Canada ranks #30 and the U.S. ranks #37. Even though Colombia has 24 of the top 58 Latin American hospitals and clinics, it cannot handle a huge surge of people needing intensive care or ventilators. In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, Colombia has set up centers for people who are exhibiting virus symptoms to call. They will send a technician to your home to evaluate your symptoms and administer a test. This does two important things: keeps potentially contagious people at home instead of going to the hospital, and frees up medical staff in the hospitals to treat very critical people.

The Colombian government is paying direct care health workers a “bono” or bonus for working during this difficult time.

The Antioquia Liquor Factory (FLA) announced that it will begin the production of antiseptic alcohol next week, given the COVID-19 emergency. They are working to certify the technical and sanitary conditions required for the production of antiseptic alcohol. This permit would be granted for the period of the crisis. Once the plant is enabled for the production of this disinfectant, 146 tons are expected to be manufactured. Of these, the first 60 tons (200,000 units) will be delivered to hospitals, medical centers, and nursing homes. The second batch will be for sale to the general public. Their main interest is to be able to be socially responsible and contribute during this crisis.

What are you Doing to Prepare for the Future?

Before I semi-retired to Colombia, I worked in the healthcare field for 30 years, so I am trying to balance the constant barrage of worldwide news about COVID-19 between what I need to know and non-expert rantings and suppositions. I have taken a “this too will pass” philosophy and am focusing on what I will do when this finally ends. Looking at past pandemics…they all end. The world may look different but human civilization will continue.

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