Colombia confirmed their first case on 6 March (a 19 year old returning from travels in Milan, Italy), and after 8 more cases across the country, declared a health emergency on March 12; suspending all public events and denying entry of cruise-ships. Land borders were closed from March 16, and international arrivals of non-residents were restricted, whilst returning residents were required to complete 14 days of isolation. International flights were suspended and airports closed from March 23 onwards.
In Cartagena, tourists and ex-pats jumped on whatever outbound flights they could get. Hotels were vacated. Initially restaurants and bars could open at 30% capacity, and then with the tighter measures that started from March 20, were closed completely. In the first round of quarantine, everyone (other than essential workers) was required to stay home, with the exception that one household member could leave only to get groceries or medical supplies. Or to walk your dog (this has been the ultimate salvation for me and my adopted dog Maddie). Complete, city-wide curfews were (and continue) in place from 4pm until 6am. The wearing of masks in public is compulsory. As the quarantine restrictions extended, week after week, Cartagena's government sought to further curb the amount of people leaving their homes by introducing "pico y cédula". This means that individuals are only permitted to leave the house to buy groceries and medical supplies 1-2 times per week (it has varied depending upon the week) in accordance with the allotted day which corresponds with the final digit of their ID number. The days and numbers have been announced the Sunday before the following fornight. Some of the weeks have also further split up the allotted days by gender, in addition to ID numbers. Fines are issued for non-compliance.
This is all to say, Cartagena moved relatively rapidly and comprehensively to shut down the city. Whilst there may be some complaints about how compliant people have been with this lockdown, I think it can generally be said that the actions have probably minimised the impact of the threat to health (or at least bought more time for the region's dramatically underprepared health system).
But in a country with almost no institutional safety net (for example, no unemployment support), the economic implications have already been devastating and we can only expect they will get worse and worse. Cartagena is almost entirely dependent upon the tourism and hospitality sector. It seems unlikely that bars, restaurants, hotels, airports, borders etc will open before September (and maybe not even then). And in the meantime, super high rent, utility bills, salaries for staff etc etc are still being paid by drowning business owners who have not had any income since March 16. Desperate pleas among the hospitality/tourism industry for government assistance in negotiating rent and bill freezes or subsidies went unanswered. Each day more and more businesses close for good and staff are made redundant. Iconic fine dining restaurants Don Juan and Maria have already closed and their interiors gutted. Our beloved social enterprise vegetarian brunch place Cafe Stepping Stone also regrettably have been forced to close and the Aussie founders are booked on humanitarian flights back to their homeland. The government’s response has mostly been to advise businesses to "reinvent" themselves and move to domicilio (delivery) and servicing the local market. There have definitely been some businesses that have had success with this transition, but for others it just isn't practical, especially when rents and prices have been set based on tourists, not locals who are accustomed to cooking all their meals at home (or having their live-in maids do so). Also it's hard to see how this could work for the empty hotels, the un-chartered boats, the empty taxis, the un-visited tourist sites, the cancelled weddings and events, the tour guides and so on. I'm friends with many owners of such businesses and it is so heartbreaking to see the dreams they have fought so hard for, come crashing and, even more painful, learning of the burden many of them carry for their staff - knowing that when they stop paying wages, when there is literally no more money to do so, there is no other financial protection or support whatsoever.
This also does not mention the huge population of workers whose "employment" does not exist formally on paper. The people who sell hats or pearls to tourists, that try to get you to enter the particular bar or emerald store that pays them a commission, the women who give massages on beaches or the men who sell you an umbrella to sit under, the palenqueras selling fruits and traditional desserts, the arepa stand, the dancers who perform for tips in plazas, even those bloody freelance rappers, the list is never-ending.. no tourists, no-one allowed in public means no money.. for months. These are usually not people with savings. These are people who live day to day. They have been left dependent upon sporadically and unequally delivered food handouts for survival. When people suggest it is only a matter of time before this poverty and desperation lead to instability and insecurity crime-wise, it doesn't seem inaccurate.
I'm writing this May 27 and outside of the tourism and hospitality sector, other industries are gradually opening up. Construction, refineries, manufacturing etc For everyone else, "house arrest" has so far been mandated all the way through until June, and given many experts do not believe Colombia has hit its peak outbreak-wise, it would not be surprising if the quarantine measures extend well beyond this date.
WANT TO HELP?
There are many organisations and foundations and individuals working tirelessly to support those in need.
In Cartagena, I trust Domino Volunteers who have a network of trusted community leaders purchasing groceries and life necessities, showing receipts and distributing where there is need. They are running the fundraising mostly via their instagram page which is www.instagram.com/dominovolunteers you can email them to find out how to help at email@example.com you can also use that email address to make a payment directly into their paypal account. Their website for more general information is dominovolunteers.com
Another amazing initiative organised by Domino Volunteers is to donate your time (just 1 hour a week) to helping support the tourism and hospitality sector with English classes and practice.
The idea is to use this time without work in the most beneficial way possible and hopefully improve English levels for when tourism eventually re-opens. Can you help? Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org send a whatsapp message to +57 316 464 5382
In Bogotá , funds are being raised for families living in vulnerable conditions in the neighbourhoods of Ramirez and Egipto. These families usually work as "recyclers" picking up scraps, glass bottles, cans, metals, plastics etc and scraping by a day-to-day living. They call themselves Los Piratas de Ramirez. Due to COVID restrictions the "pirates" have not been able to earn any money and they have no savings nor support from the State. You can learn more and support via their crowdfunding at www.vaki.co/1585110190050
You may also want to help by pre-purchasing gift-vouchers for your favourite restaurants, hairdressers, bars, cooking schools etc to help keep them afloat go to www.yanospillamos.com and choose which restaurant/s you would like to support. The Cartagena restaurants on this site are Carmen, Celele and Lilapomarossa.
Or over at www.deestasalimos.co you can buy vouchers for food and drink at El Baron
You can also score a 20-25% discount if you pre-purchase Blue Apple beach club day passes and overnight stays here.
Still onBlue Apple, and this beach club and boutique hotel have to win the prize for the most creative fundraising. In a bid to continue to raise money for their staff and cover operational costs, they have created a couple of outside-the-box revenue streams that are deserving of attention.
Firstly, they are hiring out their donkeys and goats and other adorable family members to sit in on your zoom meetings and make them that much better. Yes, that's a thing. Check out more here: https://www.blueapplebeach.com/zoom
Secondly they have gathered all their talented staff who are exchanging Tips for tips.. make a donation (really anything is super appreciated) then watch any number of videos created by Blue Apple team members to learn tips like how to make a signature cocktail, how to get a great arm workout, or (and this one is so adorable) learn some basic sign-language. This is the link here: https://www.blueapplebeach.com/tips
Photo: El Bistro, doors closed, hopefully not forever.