When will things will return to normal in Colombia? We look at South Korea’s and China’s responses to coronavirus – what can Colombia learn from Asia’s success in battling coronavirus?

We have been asked by many Medellin Guru readers, “When will things return to normal in Colombia?” after the nationwide Colombia quarantine.

This is a very difficult question to answer. So, first we look a the current status of coronavirus in Colombia.

This is followed by a review of the successes in Asia in both South Korea and China in dramatically reducing their number of new coronavirus cases. We believe Colombia could learn from the successes in Asia and “flatten the curve” in Colombia even faster and start to to return to a more “normal” life more quickly.

Colombia’s initial nationwide quarantine was originally ending on April 13 but it has now been extended eight times until September 1.

The Colombian borders will continue to be closed except for the border with Ecuador opening on June 23 just for humanitarian transit of citizens and permanent foreign residents. Also, there will be no domestic flights during the period from June 1 to June 30 or later. Domestic flights in Colombia resumed in July with a pilot.

Also, according to the Minister of transport, international flights will be restricted until August 31 with international flights resuming with a pilot planned in September.

A new phase will begin from June 1 to 30 with the reactivation of museums, libraries and some other businesses. Also, starting in June, starts an “intelligent lockdown” that would allow the relaxation of restriction of movement measures based on regional conditions. These regional relaxation measures will be expanded “gradually” to recover productive life.

In addition, those over 70 will remain in isolation . But guidelines will be released so that those over 70 are allowed to have some time outside, with precautions and limitations.

Current Status of Coronavirus in Colombia on August 6, 2020

Colombia Ministerio de Salud (Ministry of Health) reported the number of coronavirus cases in Colombia on August 6 – a total of 357,710 cases with 11,939 deaths.

The first coronavirus case in Colombia was on March 6, 2020 and by August 6, the number of cases had grown to 357,710 cases. The following chart shows a running 6-day average of new coronavirus cases in Colombia daily, so you can see the trend of new daily cases for more than the past month.

coronavirus cases in Colombia, data source: Instituto Nacional de Salud, 8/6

6-day running average of new daily coronavirus cases in Colombia, data source: Instituto Nacional de Salud, 8/6

Colombian has acted faster than most countries in putting in place measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus:

  • March 12 – banned cruise ships to Colombia.
  • March 12 – banned events with over 50 people.
  • March 14 – closed schools nationwide until April 20.
  • March 16 – closed Colombia’s borders.
  • March 16 – banned non-nationals and non-resident travelers to Colombia.
  • March 16 – banned events with over 50 people.
  • March 20 – adults older than 70 in Colombia must stay isolated in homes except to buy groceries and medicines, use health services and access financial services until May 31.
  • March 20 – city quarantines in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena for four days.
  • March 23 – banned international travelers to Colombia.
  • March 24 – started a nationwide Colombia quarantine and people must stay isolated in homes except one person per family can leave to buy groceries and medicines, use health services and access financial services until April 13. But on April 6, this quarntine was extended to April 26 at 11:59 pm.
  • March 24 – banned domestic flights in Colombia until April 13.

The following table compares how many days from the first case of coronavirus in several countries until putting in place measures like closing schools nationwide or closing incoming air travel.

How many days from first coronavirus case in countries until put in place preventive measures, March 23, 2020

How many days from first coronavirus case in countries until put in place preventive measures, March 23, 2020

Coronavirus Cases in Colombia are NOT Nationwide

By putting in place measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it appears that Colombia is being successful in containing the spread of coronavirus throughout all departments and cities in Colombia.

On August 6, 2020, the majority of coronavirus cases – 316,879 – (88.6 percent) of the cases in Colombia were in only 10 departments (states) in Colombia out of 33 departments (including the district capital of Bogotá):

  1. Bogotá DC – 123,875 cases
  2. Atlántico – 56,118 cases
  3. Antioquia – 44,730 cases
  4. Valle del Cauca – 29,754 cases
  5. Bolivar – 19,657 cases
  6. Cundinamarca – 10,978 cases
  7. Nariño – 10,978 cases
  8. Córdoba –8,046 cases
  9. Magdelena – 7,731 cases
  10. Sucre – 6,984 cases

Coronavirus Cases by City in Colombia

Also, in terms of cities in Colombia on August 6, 2020, the majority of coronavirus cases – 275,891 cases – (77.1 percent) were in only 18 cities in Colombia:

  1. Bogotá – 123,875 cases
  2. Barranquilla – 31,798 cases
  3. Medellín – 24,785 cases
  4. Cali – 23,210 cases
  5. Cartagena – 16,707 cases
  6. Soledad – 12,337 cases
  7. Sincelejo – 5,260 cases
  8. Santa Marta – 5,254 cases
  9. Monteria – 5,133 cases
  10. Pasto – 4,321 cases
  11. Soacha – 4,154 cases
  12. Bello – 3,597 cases
  13. Villavicencio – 2,943 cases
  14. Valledupar – 2,764 cases
  15. Itagüí – 2,601 cases
  16. Malambo – 2,397 cases
  17. Leticia – 2,389 cases
  18. Cúcuta – 2,366 cases

Bogotá is the hardest hit city in Colombia with 123,875 cases on August 6, which was 34.5 percent of the coronavirus cases in Colombia. Also, on August 6, there were over 200 cities and towns in Colombia with only a single case reported.

Cities and Towns Without a Coronavirus Case

There are many cities, towns and pueblos in Colombia that haven’t reported a single coronavirus case.

On August 6, Medellin Guru reviewed a list of 1,099 municipalities in Colombia and found over 300 that did not have a single coronavirus case.

For example, there are reportedly over 40 municipalities in Antioquia without a case and these COVID-19 free municipalities in Antioquia are being permitted to start to lift the quarantine.

All of these cities and towns without a case likely will return to normal faster than the biggest cities in Colombia. Already nearly 200 COVID-19 free municipalities in Colombia have been permitted to start to lift the mandatory quarantine. But some had to return to quarantine due to cases.

In addition, on August 6, over 200 out of the many cities and towns in Colombia with at least one reported coronavirus case haven’t experienced a new case in over two weeks

The incubation period of coronavirus is 14 days. And Colombia is starting to experience cities and towns with coronavirus cases that haven’t reported a new case in over 14 days, which is a good sign.

When Will Colombia Lift the Quarantine?

Colombia’s initial nationwide quarantine was originally ending on April 13 but it has now been extended eight times:

  1. On April 6, was extended to April 26
  2. On April 20, was extended to May 11.
  3. A third time was extended to May 25
  4. A fourth time was extended to May 31
  5. A fifth time was extended to June 30
  6. On June 23, was extended a sixth time to July 15
  7. On July 7, was extended a seventh time to August 1
  8. On July 28, was extended an eighth time to September 1

So, the national quarantine is now for 160 days.

However, starting on April 27, the quarantine is being lifted somewhat with the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy returning to work. Also, people can leave the house for up to 1 hour per day to exercise (walking, jogging and bicycle riding) up to 1 km from their house (this exercise is limited to 2 pm to 3 pm in Medellín and the Aburrá Valley).

With its fast actions, Colombia appears it is being successful in containing the spread of coronavirus throughout Colombia. Does it make sense to continue a quarantine in a city or town in Colombia that hasn’t experienced a single case? Or hasn’t experienced a case in several weeks?

If a city still hasn’t experienced a case after a quarantine of well over two months, why should it continue to be under a lock-down quarantine if it has low risk?

On July 19, according to data from the Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) regarding coronavirus cases in Colombia correlated with a list of the largest cities in Colombia from DANE, over 400 municipalities out of 1,099 municipalities in Colombia did not have a case.

Keep in mind the incubation period is 2 to 14 days for coronavirus and the national quarantine in Colombia is for a longer period of 47 days.

So, when this article was published on April 1, we believed that Colombia could assign risk to cities and start to lift the quarantine in low-risk cities and towns. This would permit over a third of Colombia to quickly return to normal or return to some normality.

In terms of municipalities in which coronavirus infections have not yet been confirmed with coronavirus cases, President Duque on April 20 said:

In hundreds of municipalities in Colombia, there have been no cases of COVID-19, so there we are going to promote a productive economic recovery but maintaining all the protocols for the protection of health and life.

So, according to President Duque, it appears that Colombia is going to start to lift the quarantine somewhat in cities and towns and departments (states) without a coronavirus presence.

In addition, starting on May 18, Colombia started to lift the quarantine in nearly 200 COVID-19 free municipalities, so they can start to return to normal. But several of these municipalities started to experience cases and were returned to quarantine.

What about the highest-risk city of Bogotá? We believe the quarantine in Bogotá will be extended. What about the other cities in Colombia that have fewer coronavirus cases? We suspect that Colombia may assess each city and may implement different levels of quarantine based on the risk.

What have other countries done? Below we look at what South Korea and China have done, which are two countries in Asia that have seen coronavirus case counts plummet and have returned to some normality.

South Korea – Winning the Coronavirus Battle Without Shutting Down Cities

The coronavirus outbreak in South Korea once looked very grim, with new cases rapidly increasing daily and a huge cluster of infections, making it the worst-hit country in Asia outside of China.

Daily new coronavirus cases and deaths in South Korea, source: Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Daily new coronavirus cases and deaths in South Korea, source: Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As seen in the above graphic, coronavirus cases suddenly exploded in South Korea in February. The case count multiplied 180-fold in only two weeks, with daily cases hitting 813 on February 29.

But the disturbing trend quickly reversed. Starting on March 6, South Korea began reporting declining numbers of new cases, with daily increases recently dropping on some days to the dozens. As of March 31, South Korea had 9,786 cases.

South Korea’s coronavirus cases have been concentrated in the city of Daegu with nearly 70 percent of cases in the county. And the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu was responsible for the largest cluster of cases in South Korea, with a total of 5,080 cases as of March 25 or over half the cases in South Korea.

To stop the viral spread, governments around the world are turning to draconian measures, from locking down cities and countries to closing borders.

But South Korea demonstrates there is another way to bring coronavirus under control. Businesses across South Korea have largely continued to operate. And not a single city in South Korea has been locked down. In addition, with new cases in South Korea declining, life in South Korea has begun to return to normal.

South Korea tested for coronavirus at the fastest pace in the world, enabling early detection, effective isolation and timely treatment to reduce deaths so was able to begin to return to normal.

South Korea reportedly has the ability to test 12,000 people a day on average, with peak capacity of as many as 20,000 a day. By March 20, the country had tested more than 300,000 of its population of 51 million people, which is more than one of every 200.

Massive testing helped South Korea control the outbreak and reduce fatalities. But South Korea also adopted rigorous quarantine measures for those infected to prevent the spread of the virus. These measures came from painful lessons learned in Daegu, which has nearly 70 percent of all coronavirus cases in the country.

South Korea experienced overwhelmed hospitals in Daegu, resulting in numerous fatalities due to delayed treatment. Meanwhile, many patients with mild symptoms were told to quarantine at home, causing clusters of infections among family members.

On March 1, Daegu had 2,569 confirmed coronavirus cases. But only 898 of them were hospitalized and the rest were isolated at home. The same day in March, South Korea issued new guidance for coronavirus, including setting up dedicated facilities to receive patients at different stages of the disease to reduce the burden on hospitals and avoid isolating cases at home.

In addition, South Korea implemented legislation that would allow health officials to aggressively trace the footsteps of people who test positive including using security camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data from cellphones and car navigation system. So, South Korea has aggressive contact tracing to enable finding people who were infected.

Furthermore, South Korea is widely using face masks throughout the country. In late February, South Korea starting allocating 2.4 million face masks to pharmacies, each day. And South Korean health officials urge all citizens to wear face masks.

The bottom line is that mass testing and strict quarantine of infected cases measures and wide use of face masks allowed South Korea to slow the outbreak without shutting down cities and banning travel and return to normal or a more normal life.

Return to Normal Faster – What Can Colombia Learn from South Korea

South Korea has a population of 51 million that is similar sized to Colombia with a population of about 49 million. So, the two countries are similar sized but are taking completely different approaches to coronavirus.

South Korea provides a good example of how to control coronavirus without the mass quarantines and shutting the country down like has been done in Colombia.

South Korea demonstrates that massive testing can help control the outbreak and reduce fatalities. Colombia currently has capacity to only conduct about 1,200 coronavirus tests per day, which is much less than in South Korea with the ability to test 12,000 people a day on average. Also, South Korea is widely using face masks throughout the country.

But Colombia plans to increase testing capacity by using regional labs to 17,000 tests per day and also plans to add capacity for a up to 350,000 weekly rapid tests.

In addition, South Korea is isolating infected cases in special facilities and not isolating those infected at home. Colombia is currently isolating about 90 percent of cases at home. So, Colombia may experience clusters of infections in homes.

On April 2, 2020, President Iván Duque of Colombia announced that he had an emotional call with Moon Jae-in, President of Korea, on Wednesday night. President Duque said:

And I asked him for the support for Colombia and he told me that they are going to support the country with thousands of tests, so that we can advance in the quick and effective tests in our country.

Also, South Korea will advise Colombia on testing, rapid tests and scientific analysis.  So, Colombia will benefit from the experience of South Korea in containing the expansion of coronavirus.

China – Massive Quarantines Used to Flatten the Curve

China has taken a completely different approach to coronavirus than South Korea with massive quarantines in regions affected by the virus.

More than 82,000 people in China have been infected by the virus that first appeared in the city of Wuhan, killing more than 3,000 in China. But the daily number of new infections in China has dropped dramatically in recent weeks.

On January 23, 2020, China took the unprecedented step to lock down Wuhan and surrounding regions, effectively restricting the movements of 60 million people in Hubei province as coronavirus infections were increasing dramatically day-to-day.

Those infected with coronavirus were forcibly isolated in temporary hospitals and quarantine shelters. This isolation even separated parents from young children who displayed symptoms of COVID-19, no matter how seemingly mild. And in Wuhan, local authorities even went door-to-door for health checks.

In addition, the caretakers in Wuhan’s large apartment buildings that are ubiquitous in the city were forced to act as ad hoc security guards. The caretakers had to take on new responsibilities including deciding who could come in, monitoring the temperatures of residents and inspecting delivered medicine and food.

During the strict quarantine in Wuhan, people couldn’t go outside under any circumstance. You could not go out even if you had a pet. In Wuhan, tens of millions of people were isolated at home for a little over two months but quarantine rules are now being lifted in Wuhan an things starting to return to normal. The number of active coronavirus cases in China have dropped dramatically, as seen in the following graphic, resulting in much of China returning to normal.

Number of active coronavirus cases in China, source: Worldometer

Number of active coronavirus cases in China, source: Worldometer

Regulations have varied by province in China based on risk. The entire country was not under quarantine like in Wuhan. But tough measures are still in place for workers even in cities that were spared the worst of the virus. These measures include strict workplace rules, travel restrictions, rigorous testing and comprehensive tracking via smartphone.

Similar to South Korea, faces masks are ubiquitous in China and used by almost everyone.

In addition, in China to enter an office building, mall, supermarket or other large building, residents must show a color QR code on their smart phone showing they are compliant with enforced self-quarantine for those moving between cities. For example, a traveler from Shanghai to Beijing within the past 14 days will have red code and will be denied access. And cell phones in Chine are linked to national ID cards.

There are signs of things are starting to return to normal in China. Data released recently by the internet company Baidu showed that based on movements of users it estimated than 90 percent of restaurants and 85 percent of malls in Beijing have reopened. So, some things in China are beginning to return to normal.

In addition, large industrial companies are touting progress in reopening and starting to return to normal. Foxconn, the manufacturing powerhouse that makes Apple’s iPhones, reported recently that it had resumed operations enough to meet seasonal demand and plants were operating at 50 percent of capacity.

But Foxconn has implemented measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The company uses frequent temperature testing and has given more than 50,000 coronavirus tests to workers.

As of April 1, China recorded fewer than half – about 82,000 cases – compared to the number of U.S. coronavirus cases.

However, China appears to be preparing for a potential second-wave of infections. Over the last few days, China has had to again close some public spaces and businesses, such as movie theaters, amid a spike in clusters of cases, mostly imported.

Worried that international travelers could trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections, China announced last week on March 26 that it was suspending entry of foreigners to the country and was halting almost all international passenger flights as well.

This announcement last week came after data indicated that China had almost completely halted domestic transmission of the virus but was struggling to handle a growing number of imported cases – people who were infected overseas.

Return to Normal Faster – What Can Colombia Learn from China

China provides an example of a country that used quarantines to effectively control coronavirus. However, most notably, the quarantines in China were NOT nationwide and were based on risk.

Colombia is using a nationwide quarantine as a blunt instrument even in cities where the risk of coronavirus appears to low with no coronavirus cases. So, Colombia should consider basing quarantines and mitigation measures based on the coronavirus risk of cities.

Also, China appears to be bracing for a new wave of coronavirus infections caused by international travel. This is a warning to Colombia to be careful that re-opening international flights to Colombia too early could spark an increase in cases.

China is using smart phones to manage 14-day self-quarantines for travelers between cities. This could be used in Colombia as well but an issue is that only about 75 percent of Colombians have a smart phone.

Medellin Guru’s Coronavirus Series

Medellin Guru has a series of articles about the coronavirus pandemic and the impacts in Colombia: Also, these articles are being kept up-to-date, as this is a fast-moving topic:

The Bottom Line: Coronavirus – When Will Things Return to Normal in Colombia?

Colombia is now entering the “mitigation” phase of its coronavirus measures. During this phase, Colombia plans to “expand measures to flatten the epidemiological curve, save lives and prevent the health system from collapsing.”

Colombia also plans to speed up COVID-19 testing system in the country, with increased capacity. We believe this is a very good approach, as this helped South Korea with early detection, effective isolation and timely treatment to reduce deaths and has contributed to a dramatic drop in new cases. Also, keep in mind that South Korea was able to dramatically decrease its number of new coronavirus cases without the use of quarantines.

In addition, we believe it would be relatively low cost for Colombia to provide face masks for the poor that may not have access to face masks except for homemade ones. It is notable that it appears that countries in Asia that have been most effective in combating coronavirus tend to have ubiquitous use of face masks.

It is difficult to answer the question “When will things return to normal in Colombia?”, as it is challenging to predict when will things return to normal with things moving so fast in Colombia.

However we will see what Colombia decides. We expect that decisions will be made based on if the coronavirus daily case counts increase or decrease, as a result of the quarantine.

For a light at the end of the tunnel, we recommend readers look at the experience particularly of South Korea. South Korea has been able to dramatically decrease the number of new coronavirus cases without the use of quarantines and has been able to return to normal mostly.

Also, keep in mind it took about two months of quarantine in hard-hit Wuhan in China. We think that Colombia’s quarantines likely will be shorter, as Colombia hasn’t experienced the tremendous increase of cases in Wuhan. Also, Colombia acted faster in response to coronavirus than China.

As of July 31, several million Colombians live in over 300 cities or towns without a single case of coronavirus in 130 days. Also, over 200 of the cities and towns in Colombia that had at least one coronavirus case haven’t experienced a new case in over two weeks.

Does a national quarantine still make sense for all of Colombia? 

So, we hope a continued nationwide quarantine in Colombia does not continue. This doesn’t make sense for the entire country, as over 600 cities, towns and pueblos in Colombia appear to be low risk with so far no cases during the quarantine or none in the past two weeks. So, why can’t they return to normal?

But we expect quarantines to remain in some cities in Colombia, particularly Bogotá, which has by far the highest number of cases in Colombia and the case count in Bogotá has been increasing at an alarming rate so is less likely to return to normal.

Readers, when do you think or hope things will return to normal in Colombia?

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Editors note: updated on June 19, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for June 18.

Editors note: updated on June 21, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for June 20.

Editors note: updated on June 22, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for June 21.

Editors note: updated on June 24, 2020 with information that the quarantine in Colombia has been extended to July 15.

Editors note: updated on June 27, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for June 26.

Editors note: updated on June 29, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for June 28.

Editors note: updated on July 3, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 2.

Editors note: updated on July 6, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 5.

Editors note: updated on July 8, 2020 with information that the quarantine in Colombia has been extended to August 1.

Editors note: updated on July 10, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 9.

Editors note: updated on July 16, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 15.

Editors note: updated on July 20, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 19.

Editors note: updated on July 25, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 24.

Editors note: updated on July 28, 2020 with information that the quarantine in Colombia has been extended to September 1.

Editors note: updated on August 1, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for July 31.

Editors note: updated on August 7, 2020 with coronavirus case counts for August 6.

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