COVID-19 and Human Rights in Colombia

It is not a time to neglect human rights; it is a time when, more than ever, human rights are needed to navigate this crisis in a way that will allow us, as soon as possible, to focus again on achieving equitable sustainable development and sustaining peace UN Report Covid-19 and Human Rights: We are All in this Together

On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. In the case of Colombia, according to the Ombudsman (Defensoría de Pueblo) the first positive diagnosis took place on 7 March 2020. The government of Ivan Duque Marquez moved quickly to declare a state of emergency on 17 March 2020, and on 22 March issued Decreto 457 ordering mandatory confinement. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Spanish Acronym), COVID-19 was present at that time in 19 of Colombia’s 32 departments. Initially, mandatory confinement was until 27 April, this has since been extended to 11 May 2020.

While COVID-19 is infecting all people and all countries, not all people and all countries are equally impacted.

The historic inequalities that exist in Colombia and of lack of access to basic services, such as health and water to name just two, are impacting unequally and disproportionately on rural populations especially those that have a long history of marginalisation, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, afro-Colombian and peasant farmer communities as well as the poor in urban areas. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), Colombia is among the three countries with the highest levels of inequality in Latin America, with a Gini coefficient of 0.51.

Colombian Governments Strategy to address COVID 19

The main strategy of the Colombian Government to stop the spread of the COVID-19, like other countries is confinement, social distancing, regular washing of hands and surfaces. However, the possibilities of putting this policy is often impossible for a large percentage of the population in Colombia. According to the 2018 Public Service Report, only 35% of households in rural areas have access to water in their homes, and 87.5% in urban areas. In addition to this disadvantage many rural communities and poor urban population find that the actions they need to take to prevent the spread of the virus are in tension with the basic need of food (and the capacity to purchase this) and water.

While multiple institutions and even former FARC guerrillas are trying to bolster the country’s fragile healthcare system, the main challenge is to prevent starvation among those who have been left without income.” Colombia Reports

There are reports of citizens and communities suffering hunger, lack of drinking water, or water for sanitary purposes. Many who live off daily earnings or who are sub-contracted in cities have been left without an income.

There is a desperation amongst the poorest in Colombia, on the one hand they want to avoid contracting the virus because there is no access for them to adequate medical attention and on the other they are responsible for feeding their families and providing a roof over their heads, and without an income they are unable to do that. Many in the rural areas have continued to sell their produce, risking contracting the virus, only to find that no one is buying it.

Corruption and Emergency Aid

Although emergency aid was subsequently promised by the Duque government its delivery has been marred by corruption and mismanagement resulting in food and water not reaching people in desperate need.  According to Noticias Capital, the Comptroller General opened 27 preliminary investigations of corruption against the Ministry of Defence and the local authorities in Arauca, Vichada, Cesar, Valle de Cauca, Casanare, Tolima, Nariño and Guaviare for corruption in relation to emergency aid.

In the capital Bogota, households under quarantine resorted to hanging red material from their windows in a desperate bid to alert the outside world to their hunger. The World Food Programme by the end of April 2020 had registered over 900,000 vulnerable people affected by the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19 who had applied to them for food. The precarious situation of many people has increased social protests, roadblocks and looting of trucks carrying food in some regions of the country.

In a positive expression of solidarity, citizens in Bogota and Medellin responded to the calls for help. As a result of the failure of central government aid, local fundraising was organised to buy food for the city’s poor to survive the quarantine, by the Mayors of Bogota and Medellin. They fundraised US$13 million in Bogota and almost US$3.3 million in Medellin.

Venezuelan migrants were not included in the Government’s emergency aid programs, and as a result of worsening conditions many returned to Venezuela. Colombia opened its boarder to allow them to cross into Venezuela. Where they encountered an even worse humanitarian crisis. Consequently, many opted to return to Colombia, however, entry borders had been closed to prevent the spread of COVID 19. Those re-entering Colombia are classed as illegal migrants, having crossed a closed border. They have therefore moved from legal to illegal migrants, further compounding their situation.

The Wayuu Peoples and the Afro-Colombian communities in quarantine, in la Guajira are an example of lack of access to water. Making even more pertinent the legal struggle they are engaged in to protect their rivers from the impacts of the Carbones de Cerrejón (Cerrejón). One of the largest open pit coal mines globally, jointly owned by London registered multination giants AngloAmerican, BHP Billiton and Glencore.

In responding to the confinement requirements for COVID-19 pandemic, the Wayuu indigenous peoples are unable to selling or exchanging their crafts for the food and water they need to survive. Water is precious in the Dry Tropical Forests of La Guajira. Cerrejón has impacted on at least 19 of their rivers and flood plains . The communities are engaged in a legal battle to stop the Coal company from redirecting the river – Arroyo Bruno – to serve the purposes of the mine. In this crisis they have sent out an urgent call for the mine to immediately release the tap on the Arroyo Bruno. This river was tapped off earlier this year ahead of the Court’s ruling. Some civil society organisations are raising funds to directly help support these communities (if you would like to help this link takes you to the giving webpage).

Health Infrastructure and rural communities

The precarious conditions for the right to health suffered by Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities in Colombia makes them even more vulnerable.  For example, in Chocó on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, where many of ABColombia’s partners are located, over 90% of the population are Indigenous and Afro-Colombians living on collectively owned territory. A department historically neglect by the State, structurally weak in attending to basic needs, and experiencing a humanitarian crisis. It is served mainly by third level hospitals (similar to cottage hospital in the UK), with the exception of the departmental capital Quibdó, where the only second level hospital is located. However, this hospital has no more than 27 Intensive Care Units (ICU)[i] for a population of approximately 500,000. It would be a medical catastrophe if COVID-19 took hold in Chocó with its weak health infrastructure.

On 29 April Colombia had registered 5,597 cases of COVID 19 the majority in Bogota 2,345. Nationally 253 people were confirmed as having died from COVID-19. The highest number of reported deaths from COVID-19 are in the departments and districts of: Santa Marta, Amazonas, Cartagena, Bogotá, Valle del Cauca, Risaralda, Quindío and Huila. However, the capacity for testing in the rural and neglected areas of the country is limited, which suggests the possibility of much large numbers of infections and deaths not yet been reported. An example of the difficulties, in one Indigenous Tribe in Choco, that lives approximately eight hours from Quibdó (departmental capital), reported COVID19 symptoms, but there was no way to test and confirm this. In Amazonas there is a lack of resources to attend to the COVID-19 emergency, it currently has one of the highest numbers of reported cases and no intensive care beds. The health minister, Fernando Ruiz, has announced that the government will improve the medical resources in Amazonas assigning a budget increase for the regional hospital of approximately US 3.6m [2].

Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Peasant farmer communities across Colombia wrote to President Duque:

“Today we need you to respond to us, in order that we can take preventative measures to face the COVID19 pandemic. This means being able to access drinking water, food supplies, and urgent attention to the symptoms of malaria, dengue and other diseases that are affecting us. This URGENT decision will help avoid serious consequences and social, environmental and cultural impacts of the quarantine from which it will be difficult for us to recover…Mr President, those of us in remote territories… are in absolutely delicate and serious situations. We are in urgent need of medical treatment …. There are high levels of malnutrition. We are without water.” Read the full letter

The Colombian state fails to comply with its own directives on Covid 19

Despite the national quarantine and the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Colombia decided to intensify its coca eradication programme. On the 25 March 2020 the Security Forces carried out  coca eradication in six departments of Colombia, Putumayo, Caquetá, el sur de Córdoba, Chocó, Catatumbo y Nariño.  This involved taking troops and those hired to carry out the eradication into rural areas with the strong possibility that at least one person would be carrying, into these more remote regions, COVID-19. By doing this the Colombian government is not upholding its own strategy for containing the virus. For example, one of these operations took place in Putumayo, this department is referred to as the entrance to the Amazon, where according to  UN OCHA (29 April 2020) there are no cases of COVID-19 registered, over 80 anti-narcotics police were flown in by helicopter  to carry out the forced eradication. The risk of the transmission of COVID 19 into an area with no reported cases and poor health infrastructure is a very questionable action. It is important to note that five out of the six departments were these operations took place there are agreements in operation with the Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos (Integrated National Programme for Crop Substitution- PNIS) for voluntary eradication. There can be no justification for putting at risk the lives of communities in this way.

Conflict and COVID19

Despite the ELN agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire to help prevent the spread COVID19 none of the other armed groups agreed to this. The ELN ceasefire maintained their right to defend themselves against attack. There have however been breeches on the part of the ELN.

“Armed groups as well as criminal groups appear to be taking advantage of the fact that most of the people are in lockdown to expand their presence and control over the territory,

Neo-paramilitary Groups, ELN, FARC dissidents, EPL are all continuing their struggle to control illicit economies and expand their territorial control with no regard to the danger of bringing into these communities COVID-19.

There have been several mass displacements in the departments of Chocó and Nariño on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, seven between the last week of March and 25 April, with over a 1,000 people displaced. In addition to this in other parts of Chocó, the conflict has confined almost a 1,000 people.

In addition, in many areas they are issuing orders to control behaviours, erecting illegal checkpoints, to control people’s movements.

The Dangers for Human Rights Defenders in Lockdown

Dangers for Community Leaders and Human Rights Defenders with the lockdown in place, dangers for Community Leaders and Human Rights Defenders have exacerbated; those who have been threatening them for defending the rights of others have able to locate them easily in their homes. For example on 24 March 2020 armed men arrived at the house of Carlota Isabel Salina Perez, member of the Popular Women’s Organisation (Organización Femenina Popular), forced her out of her home and shot her. Since then her partner has disappeared. On the same day indigenous leaders Omar and Ernesto Guasiruma were killed in their homes. As well as, Julio Sandoval Chía (Norte de Santander) and Ángel Ovidio Quintero (Antioquia).

An assassination plan was revealed to kill Jani Silva, community leader of the Peasant Farmer Reserve Perla Amazónica (ZRCPA), Putumayo.. Illegal armed groups have been moving around freely in the region of Perla Amazónica and the Putumayo river. These illegal armed structures are present in the same areas of operation as the 27ª Brigada de la Selva (27th Jungle Brigade) and the Fuerza Naval del Sur (Southern Navy Force). Three other leaders from Perla Amazónica have also received multiple death threats and arer concenred that during this COVID19 crisis they will be acted on. They are still waiting for the government to respond to a longstanding request for collective protection measures.