Between the first known case and the first death in Colombia, the government took action to stop the spread of the disease. All of these decisions, insofar as they are considered part of ordinary police powers, will be reviewed by the State Council as to their legality. The State Council has decided to review 400 administrative acts that it has identified as related to the emergency.
On March 10, the Ministry of Health adopted the first measures: mandatory isolation of passengers arriving from China, Spain, France and Italy, regardless of whether they were nationals or foreigners.
On March 12, the same authority declared a “Sanitary Emergency” based on powers granted to this effect in Law 9 of 1979 and Decree 780 of 2016. This Resolution 385 of 2020 prohibited gatherings of more than 500 persons and instructed Majors and Governors to cancel other non-urgent gatherings of less than 500.
On March 15, the Judicial Authority (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura) ordered the quarantine of all workers in the Justice sector and suspended all cases, except for criminal cases involving restrictions of liberty, guardianship cases involving the guarantee of fundamental rights, and judicial controls of measures adopted by government to contain the pandemic.
On March 16, the President of Congress decided to postpone the meeting of Congress until April 13, and that Congress would meet virtually thereafter.
On March 22, President Iván Duque declared a mandatory quarantine with “34 exceptions,” using his ordinary police powers.
While the mandatory isolation orders are quite broad, forbidding completely the circulation of individuals and vehicles but for the “34 exceptions,” there are concerns about the effectiveness of the quarantine. Individuals authorized to circulate, such as service workers, care workers, health workers, and security personnel, massively use public transportation and fail to observe minimum social distancing recommendations.
Stricter enforcement has been discarded as an option. To the contrary, starting April 27, exceptions have been added to the effect of reactivating the construction and manufacturing industries and allowing exercise for individuals from 18 to 69 years of age.
On the other hand, the President has requested emergency powers to address the economic crisis derived from the crash of the oil industry, which Colombia is highly dependent on, and from the halt of economic activity derived from the mandatory quarantine.
Under the Social State of Emergency declared on March 17, 2020 (Decree 417 of 2020), the government has issued a total of seventy-two decrees related to economic relief for the rich, the poor, and the poorest (as of April 27). Relief measures address housing, pensions, bankruptcy, the use of emergency savings by formal workers, families with young children, social welfare programs for the old and the young, reconnections of public utilities, flexibility for university loan payments, special loans for farmers, and workers in certain industries, such as tour guides, actors, and actresses. Additionally a new cash subsidy has been created for those not included in any of the existing social programs. These measures are pending review by the Constitutional Court.
There have been very few protests in response to the pandemic, and generally they do not oppose the quarantine, but rather government failings in delivering the promised aid.
The greatest concern regarding the impact of quarantine measures is the situation of women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and individuals living in jails and prisons around the country.
The number of femicides in Colombia has increased from 0.47 a day to 0.75 a day during the quarantine, notwithstanding the efforts to provide women with safe routes to report and high rates of use of these mechanisms. Two prisons have already experienced outbreaks and are the main source of infection in the cities were they are located. Measures to decrease overcrowding in prisons already adopted by the Ministry of Justice, a problem that the Constitutional Court has been dealing with for over twenty years, have little potential to make prisons less vulnerable to COVID-19.
Isabel C. Jaramillo Sierra is a full professor of Law at Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, and coordinator of the Latin American Network of Scholars working on Gender and Sexuality.