COVID 19 pandemic exacerbates poverty and inequality in Colombia

The rapid spread of the pandemic has been a challenge for the Latin Americana and Caribbean (LAC) region, essential sanitary measures such as regular handwashing and social distancing measures are difficult to for the 230 million vulnerable people in LAC countries according to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Many households do not have access to safe water, and 21% of the Latin American urban population live in slums, informal settlements or precarious housing, where overcrowding and the lack of basic services are some of the factors that create an environment especially conducive to the spread of the disease (OXFAM, 2020).

Although Colombia reacted quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing preventive isolation to address the health crisis, extreme inequalities in lockdown meant that the poorest had difficulty in surviving because they must work to live. The pandemic exacerbated historical inequalities especially those of women, indigenous Peoples, afro-Colombians and peasant farmers.

Amid one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 3.5 million people in 2020. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), based on an analysis in 15 countries, found that Colombia remains one of two countries with the highest levels of inequality in the LAC region. In fact, in 2020 Colombia was added to the UN list of the top 23 ‘hunger hotspots’ which are expected to face an acute level of food insecurity due to the combination of economic repercussions of COVID-19, the climate crisis and conflict.

The impact of the pandemic was exacerbated by historically low health expenditure, and too few hospital beds – Colombia has less than 2.1 beds per 1000 people.[1] For example, in Chocó department where most of the population experience high levels of vulnerability there are only two hospitals to serve 520,296 inhabitants. Both are in the capital city of Quibdó, making access almost impossible for the indigenous and Afro-Colombian rural population, who must travel for days to reach the city. In addition, there is limited access to drinking water. According to national official statistics the percentage of rural households without access to drinking water was 14.7 times higher than that of urban households.

COVID 19 and Security of communities and HRDs

The lack of a comprehensive State presence in many rural areas of Colombia limited the government’s capacity to protect the population and ensure basic rights, including the rights to life. Illegal armed groups took advantage of this situation particularly on the Pacific Coast of Colombia to force their regulations on communities, to confine them in their territory or to displace them. Conflict between illegal armed groups was prevalent on the Pacific Coast as they sought to expand their territorial control, control of communities and illicit economies.

Armed groups in Colombia took advantage of lockdown to terrorise and control communities. In 2020, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observed an increase in the number of massacres during lockdown, when the number soared to at least 76 massacres, the highest number since before the signing of the Peace Accord in 2016. In 66% of the cases, the alleged perpetrators were members of paramilitary and criminal groups.

According to the UN Mission of verification there was also an “epidemic of violence” against human rights defenders. Lockdown made it easy for Human Rights defenders to be located by armed groups taken from their homes and killed. According to Frontline Defenders, in 2020, 177 HRD were killed in Colombia.


In the context of the severe impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods, the Colombian government promoted measures that favoured the economic sectors, such as permissions to operate during the pandemic in non-essential sectors like mining, despite the risks of contagion, and finally proposing a tax reform that imposed new fiscal obligations on the middle class, as well as increased taxes on basic living necessities which would hit the poorest. The announcement of this unpopular tax reform, that threatened to further impoverish the poor and the middle classes, led to mass social protests on 28 April 2021, tens of thousands of protesters joined a strike to vent frustration over rising inequality and failure to implement the peace accords resulted in horrendous police brutality.


Increased resources allocated by the Colombian government were severely hampered in their distribution by corruption. The Colombian Inspector General’s office has initiated 813 disciplinary proceedings in 27 governors’ offices and 396 mayors’ offices related to alleged embezzlement of public funds allocated to the health emergency.


Between 25 March and 31 December 2020, the hotline for women victims of gender-based violence received 21,602 calls about domestic violence, an increase of 103 per cent compared with 2019.

In 2020 gender inequality with respect to the right to work was seen to impact women disproportionately, unemployment and gender inequality levels were the highest they had been during the previous 10 years in Colombia.

[1] Average in OECD countries is 4.7 beds – Colombia is an OECD country