Colombia Travel During Covid and the Protests of 2021

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After being stuck in a cold, grey Michigan all winter for the first time in years,  I finally got my second covid shot in April and after two weeks took a flight to Colombia.

But when the government advises against traveling abroad, what do you do? Only a few destinations  are level 3 – “reconsider travel” but most countries in Europe and Latin America, including Colombia, are listed level 4 – “do not travel”. And after a month down here I can see why. 

These countries are still deep in the war on covid. There is just a trickle of covid vaccines coming in and no light at the end of the tunnel. They continue to fight the war on covid with curfews and lock downs.  Weekdays after 8 pm you can’t leave your house or hotel.  And on the weekends there are total lock downs. Buses don’t run, beaches are closed and unless you have a special permit to circulate, you can only leave the hotel for a local walk or to grab a bite at a nearby restaurant. Tourists are expected to abide by the covid restrictions just like everyone else.

They call it confinement and it has been going on for a over a year. The locals are tired of the restrictions and are starting to crack. There are no existential debates here about personal liberties or infringements on individual rights.  No screaming Karens in the store aisles. You mask up, follow the rules or get slapped with hefty fines. 

To access a little more freedom you have to leave the cities and stick to little villages and countryside.  For a couple weeks I rented a little house in the mountains in southern Colombia not far from Cali. I had a kitchen, bought eggs, cheese, yogurt and chickens from the local farmers. Life was good. Then last week I  came back down to the city planning on doing a little traveling around coffee country using buses, hotels, taxis, restaurants then heading to Medellin and then up to the coast. Remember, real travel.

But a few weeks ago, the second war, the reactionary war on covid began. Protests erupted around the country. Since then I have been confined to a self-imposed house arrest in Palmira just outside of Cali. The province of Valle de Cauca is closed down and I haven’t been able to travel anywhere.

Colombian Protests

Because of the efforts by the Colombian government to fight covid, the county’s GDP has dropped 6.8% the deepest crash in half a century. The pandemic has further driven up the unemployment rate to 17% while nearly half the population lives in poverty. Recently the government increased taxes on the poor, middle class and  businesses while decreasing the health and education budgets and raising the age for retirement; all done in an attempt to battle the deficits caused by the covid shut downs over the last year. Protests were organized  by the labor unions, indigenous groups, students and the people already struggling to make ends meet. 

The marches quickly escalated. Statues were toppled, protesters filled squares getting gassed and beaten by police. Gangs and vandals took advantage of the confusion to loot stores and burn buses. Revolutionary groups emerged in the cities attacking police stations and burning banks. Chaos ensured. After just a week over 38 people were killed, 370 people have completely disappeared (desparacidos) while another 800 were injured – most of them students. 

This week the government withdrew the tax increases. But the protests continue. The people want the government to stop the cut backs on health, education and pensions. They want the government to procure and distribute more vaccines so herd immunity can be quickly reached, schools can reopen and business can get back to normal.  

This is the third week of the protests which show no sign of letting up any time soon.  Highways have been blocked by various groups throughout the country. Trucks can’t get through to supply the cities with medical supplies and food. Not even covid vaccines are getting through. Road blocks won’t let the people go to work and if you want to get through, a fee is charged by the protesters to let you pass. Garbage trucks aren’t picking up trash which is being piled up in the streets. Supermarkets  and stores are closed as their shelves have been empty for days while food rots in warehouses. Farmers are pouring milk they can’t sell in the city into the ditches and locally giving away fruits and vegetables that will soon go bad. Gasoline tankers can’t get through,  petrol stations have no more fuel and have closed. ATM machines can’t spit out cash because the armored trucks can’t get through to fill them.  The country is slowly grinding to a stop.

Colombian Democracy in Jepardy?

The government is sending the military into the cities to restore order while a general strike was called for the remaining days this week. There is talk of a possible military coup or even another Colombian civil war. 

Does all of this sound vaguely familiar? Images of the insurrection of January 6 in the USA still haunt me.  Are democratic institutions really this fragile?

A second war around the world  is starting to unwind, fueled by the economic damages caused by covid.  A partisan  war being waged against government solutions, economic philosophies and against each other.

Unless you travel to an island like San Andres or some gated hotel community in Cancun where covid restrictions and its effects are magically hidden from the tourists, like the local poverty spilling onto the streets on your ride to and from the airport, this is what foreign travel will look and feel  like for the next year, two or three to come. Some analysts predict many countries in the developing world won’t be fully immunized against coronavirus until  2024 and this gap may lead to new deadly waves of covid variant infections as the virus circulates and evolves. It will mean more economic instability and crumbling democracies. 

Colombia has reported 78,771 covid deaths to date. The USA has 582,000. We never had anywhere near the confinement and restrictions other countries have endured. Our economy didn’t suffer as much. But our death toll, the highest in the world, shows the real policy cost. Now that half of the U.S. population is vaccinated and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, let’s hope other countries quickly get the needed vaccines and that light at the end of the tunnel appears for them too. 

Let’s hope we can all travel to the four corners of the world soon. Everyone working in Colombia’s travel industry desperately wants us to come, And  most of us are more than ready to pack a bag and go.

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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