Colombia’s Covid-19 Patient 1

Despite having suffered Covid-19 at the very end of February 2020, I was not Colombia’s Covid-19 Patient 1. The dubious honour of that moniker has fallen to the unfortunate person listed as Patient 1, on March 6 upon her return home to Colombia from Milan. She’s not really the Patient 1 either, just a number or a helpful footnote which indicates the date when the Colombian government and Ministry of Health became alert to the idea that Covid-19 could have reached these shores. 

Feria de Turismo, Bogotá

The three-day fever which struck me as I left the Corferias convention centre in Bogotá on 27 February laid me out. I don’t recall any pressure on my lungs, but alighting from my bed to go as far as the bathroom seemed a herculean struggle and my high fever never abated. The strong antibiotics provided to combat a virus may or may not have worked but after three days, I returned to my routines, although for easily what was a two-week period, I was not lucid. A strange lethargy had set in which delayed my thought processes and actions. 

It didn’t cross my mind that I may have had the virus, after all Covid-19 was still so far away. It wasn’t of course, but our politicians were still treating it as something “brought by foreigners.” The doubt remained with me until last week, on 2 August here in Mompós, I called a local clinic’s receptionist and received a home visit to have the test. 

Where did I catch it? At the ANATO tourism fair in Bogotá, an annual event (25-28 February 2020) held to promote Colombia to international visitors, national tourists and showcase offers of overseas travel by travel agencies. According to the press release at the closure of the event, in the Macrorueda de Negocios (the speed-dating sequence of meetings set up between providers and agencies), 245 representatives of travel agencies from 31 countries played a part in 4,112 meetings. I was one of the 266 business-owners pitching Colombia and my products to roughly 35 of those 245 people. Hands were pressed, distances went unobserved and 500 plus of us all presumably used the two closest yet, laughably small, bathrooms to our meeting pavilion. 

Done privately here in Mompós, my results were delivered two and a half hours later via WhatsApp and the message arrived as if in a speech bubble on my screen: 

Covid-19 results

“You are a recovered Covid-19 patient.”

Reflecting on the news, I leafed through my diary to see who I had come into contact with in the days after my fever. There were but two brief meetings with friends, both of whom I contacted straight away and who, thankfully, have remained in good health and have not been affected. 

Over lunch last week and maintaining a suitable distance, I told the local Priest in Mompós as we chatted, that I was a recovered Covid-19 carrier and had since tested negative. His face showed surprise that I should admit to this, so bad is the stigma surrounding the virus in these small towns. As the conversation ensued the Padre spoke of neighbours in one locality nearby, threatening to hurl stones and rocks at a home belonging to someone who they believed was carrying the virus. Therefore, names are kept secret and locations are hidden. I suspect, given that we have only five ICU beds, no intensive care medics and no ventilators that any serious cases are whisked off to nearby Magangue. 

From the Gobernación de Bolívar

As of Sunday 9 August, the Gobernación de Bolívar has shown there to be 32 registered cases and 4 deaths in Mompós. On the INS website, the numbers are fewer. Both are likely inaccurate overall. The Padre himself spoke of the serious problem of a number of individuals, themselves asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, who erroneously believe themselves to be immune and who were still out and about going about their daily routines. And, if the two major towns of Magangue in Bolívar and El Banco in Magdalena are experiencing serious uncontrolled outbreaks, how can Mompós, located in-between the two, register such low numbers? 

Not only are the numbers of carriers inaccurate but we must consider that this situation is mirrored all over rural Colombia, such is the state of healthcare in rural areas and peripheral neighbourhoods in cities. 

Every evening, and I have managed to watch around 10 minutes in total since the show began, President Duque takes centre-stage during his televised broadcast to the nation and bores and bombards us with publicity and reports favourable to his administration’s response to the pandemic. 

He’s wrong to do this of course, positioning himself as more important than the news and information which he should impart.  

President Duque is incapable of capturing and maintaining the attention of the public and therefore his television show is redundant and dead air. People need a message of support and education from a leader on what the virus means, how it spreads and what we, as a community can do (very little it seems). This is not being done, instead we must feel privileged at the government’s benevolence in showing us images – set to music – of Chinese-made ventilators arriving at El Dorado and pithy human-interest stories. 

Hindsight is a remarkable thing and as Covid-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March, it seems a mistake and a somewhat irresponsible action by the Colombian Ministry of Commerce and Procolombia to have hosted an international event which saw 43,000 people pass through the doors of the Corferias convention centre. 

What kind of contagion materialized during this event? It’s hard to imagine the possibilities. 

Here in Mompós, numbers are on the rise and as we near the supposed “peak” of the pandemic in Bogotá in three weeks’ time according to Mayor Claudia López, what of the countryside? One suspects that peaks here will come in waves, differing from town to town, depending on population size and social behaviour. The police do their rounds and slap unpayable fines on an unconcerned facemask free public and we are limited to one day a week at the supermarket. 

A message of solidarity from the Mayor of Mompós, Guillermos Santos

Life has changed and yet there are those who choose to ignore this fact and there are fundamental structural and societal changes ahead. I was not Patient 1 in Colombia, but I was No.1 within my family.  

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About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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