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The “Central Mayorista” wholesale produce market in the Medellin suburb of Itagüí just got a crucial “OK” grade from Antioquia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Rodolfo Correa Vargas during an April 18 personal inspection to check for Coronavirus prevention.

Correa visited the giant Central Produce Market – by far the largest in metro Medellin, serving the entire metropolitan area -- ”in order to verify compliance with biosafety protocols, price controls and the timely supply of products for the consumption of the Antioqueños,” according to an April 19 bulletin from the Antioquia departmental government.

A special sanitary-control board is now operating at the wholesale center, composed of the center’s own board of directors, its top management, the Mayor of Itagüí and the Health Department Secretariats of Antioquia and Itagüí, according to the Antioquia government.

“People can be absolutely calm and assured because we know that the Central Produce Market is the heart of Antioquia department’s [fresh-food] supply,” Secretary Correa stated.

Beyond daily, continuing sanitary inspections and controls, the market also underwent a comprehensive disinfection of exhibition and marketing areas on April 18, according to the departmental government.

In addition, merchants operating at the Central Market “will acquire an electronic thermometer so that the temperature and symptoms of workers and buyers entering this large supply center are permanently monitored,” according to the departmental government.

Anyone entering or working at the Center also must be wearing a proper face mask -- and disinfectants are provided “to ensure that the space is kept clean and free from pathogens,” according to the government.

Special focus on Central Mayorista came in the wake of unrelated Coronavirus contamination issues among some workers around Medellin's Central Minorista retail market near downtown Medellin last week -- an issue that triggered a massive disinfection operation, following a mandatory closure.

The east-of-Medellin “Oriente” region -- second only to Cundinamarca in Colombia’s gigantic cut-flower export industry – aims for a sales rebound for the upcoming May 10 annual “Mother’s Day” demand surge typically seen in North America, Europe and parts of Asia.

As noted in an April 14 bulletin from Asocolflores (the national flower-producers’ trade association), the Colombian government granted flower producers and exporters some limited exemptions from the national Coronavirus quarantine.

However, these partial exemptions also include extra-strict health protocols for workers at production and shipping sites, as well tougher restrictions on the number of workers allowed on company buses typically used for transport.

“President Iván Duque extended mandatory preventive isolation until April 27 due to Covid-19, but maintained the exceptions that allow the floriculture sector to operate,” noted Asocolflores president Augusto Solano.

“Our farms continue to work under strict health and hygiene measures, which implies higher operating costs because, for example, company buses are traveling with half the number of people they normally transport,” Solano said.

Meanwhile, latest figures on the evolution of the Coronavirus crisis indicate that Colombia is not only doing better than many other nations, but also beating its earlier, more pessimistic projections. Because of this, “the government hopes to begin a gradual and careful opening of the rest of the economy” in the coming months, Asocolflores noted.

In the meantime, “Colombian flower growers already have production and logistics in place to meet demand from different countries, which for the most part continues to be the United States, Japan and now some European countries,” according to the trade group.

Beyond preparing for the annual export surge for Mother’s Day, Colombia’s flower producers are also helping to address the Coronavirus crisis in Antioquia and elsewhere in Colombia, according to the group.

Among those efforts: donation of four Intensive Care Units (ICU) for Cundinamarca and Antioquia; donations to subsidize the purchase of an ambulance for Rionegro, Antioquia; delivery of Coronavirus detection tests for the small tropical-flower-growers’ region; and distribution of food packages for poor families.

In addition, “Asocolflores also delivered 120,000 stems of flowers to nine hospitals in Bogotá, Medellin and small towns in Cundinamarca to celebrate International Health Day on April 7,” according to the trade group.

The Mayor’s Office of Medellin announced April 17 that 100 of 183 confirmed cases of Coronavirus here have already fully recovered – a 54% recovery rate to date, with more recoveries expected.

In total, 4,154 persons in Medellin suspected of having Coronavirus-like symptoms have undergone laboratory tests. “Of these, 3,669 have shown no infections, 302 are under study and 183 have been positive,” according to the Mayor’s Office.

What’s more, “100 of the 183 confirmed cases have been recovered -- that is, more than half,” according to the Office.  So far, only one person in Medellin -- a 90-year-old woman suffering several other life-threatening illnesses -- has died of Coronavirus complications.

“Timely decision-making, rigorous monitoring of each case, and other measures implemented by the Medellin city government have been decisive for the containment of the virus one month after the first case of Covid-19 in the city was confirmed,” according to the Mayor's Office.

Beyond the national quarantine that is helping not only Medellin but also all Colombia to stem the spread of Coronavirus infections, Medellin also ordered compulsory use of masks in public transport and all enclosed spaces.

“In addition, the activation of 123 field investigations and isolation [orders] has allowed the epidemiological dynamics to be different compared to the rest of the country,” according to the Office.

“We have had valuable days that have allowed us to prepare for the most important phase of the epidemic: the mitigation phase,” added Medellin Health Secretary Andree Uribe Montoya.

“All the actions we have taken to anticipate the Coronavirus have allowed all cases to be controlled and we have all the measures identified to control the spread of the virus,” Uribe added.

Since January 27, the Health Secretariat of the Mayor's Office of Medellín “began executing an action plan to deal with the Coronavirus, initially focused on preparation and coordination of all the actors that would be key to containing the virus: departmental administration, transport terminals, airports, hospital network, personnel and health professionals,” according to the Mayor's Office.

“From then on, [the city government issued] timely communications about personal hygiene and healthy lifestyle recommendations; the training of more than 4,000 people in topics related to Covid-19 prevention; the allocation of more than COP$3 billion [US$763,000] to strengthen the health system; the activation of the ‘Acute Respiratory Infections’ contingency plan and the start-up of the ‘123’ emergency line for the attention of Covid-19,” according to the Office.

“Thanks to timely diagnoses, it has been possible to identify and treat the 183 local patients, thus avoiding [a greater pandemic]. The good news for the city is that more than half of the cases have already recovered . . . a figure that added to those recovered from the rest of Antioquia reaches 158,” or fully one-quarter of the entire national recoveries, the Office noted.

According to the Colombia Health Ministry, as of April 17 Colombia had 3,439 cases of Coronavirus, led by Bogota (1,396); Cali/Valle del Cauca (605); and Medellin/Antioquia (324). Nationally, 153 persons have died from Coronavirus complications, while 634 have fully recovered as of April 17, according to the Ministry.

Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero announced April 17 via his Twitter account that the Medellin metro area -- Valle de Aburra -- theoretically could have 3 million people infected with Coronavirus.

However, the Mayor didn’t specify how this would happen, when it might happen, nor how many cases would be “severe” or “critical.”

“In Medellín and its metropolitan area, we estimate that between 2 million and 3 million people could be infected by Covid-19. I see people relaxing. We have only bought time. The hardest is yet to come,” Quintero warned.

The alarmist message from the Mayor comes on the heels of the latest Colombia Health Ministry computerized data-modeling forecast, which (in theory) indicates that perhaps 50% of Colombians eventually would be infected with Coronavirus (see Medellin Herald April 16, 2020).

However, the number of Colombians with life-threatening complications is likely to be a small fraction of the total Coronavirus infections, according to Health Ministry forecasts.

Nevertheless, Colombia continues to buy-time against a potentially huge wave of simultaneous infections by imposing quarantines and other restrictive measures -- especially for the most vulnerable populations, according to the Ministry.

“The [Coronavirus] mortality rate in our nation is just three per million inhabitants, while in Brazil it is eight, in Panama 22 and in the United States it is 86 deaths,” according to an April 16 bulletin from the Colombian Health Ministry.

“These figures allow us to recognize that Colombia has been facing the Covid-19 pandemic [with proactive initiatives] such as having the first laboratory for the diagnosis of the virus in Latin America and also being the pioneers in adopting extreme measures against the new Coronavirus on the continent, in order to preserve the public health of Colombians.

“Among the measures are a series of decrees, guidelines and protocols that have guided the current situation and that have allowed a better preparation of the Colombian health system . . .

“The Minister of Health hails the work that the private sector has done in the extension of Intensive Care Units (ICU) in a period of a month-and-a-half,” the Ministry added.

While hospitals, clinics and Colombia’s “EPS” health-care insurance networks are by law required to invest in measures to protect hospital and health workers from infections, “the [Colombian] state has taken measures in this regard and on April 8 began to deliver supplies to the institutions” including “750,000 items of personal protection throughout the country” and “in the next month-and-a-half, 19 million [more] protection elements can be delivered” to hospitals and clinics, according to Health Minister Fernando Ruiz Gomez.

National Government Helping Poor People, Hospitals, Clinics

On a related front, Colombia’s national government is speeding deliveries of crucial food and medical supplies -- especially aiming to help the poorest people, Colombia President Ivan Duque announced on April 16.

“We are talking about more than COP$6 trillion [US$1.5 billion] to deal with this emergency, and that implies the resources that have to do with equipping and acquiring equipment, but also to strengthen the protection and expansion capacity of the health system,” Duque said.

Under the president’s "Social and Economic Emergency" powers, “resources have been allocated to serve the most vulnerable, particularly 2.6 million families from the Families in Action program, 276,000 Youth in Action students and 1.7 million older adults,” he said.

“This has allowed us to implement ‘solidarity income’ that reaches nearly 3 million families who were not in any government social program, and who are receiving this attention from the state for the first time.”

In total, the national government has already implemented 72 decrees that have boosted funding to address the emergency, the President added.

“Progress has also been made in the distribution of 1.7 million nutritional aids or reinforcements through the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF), to serve children,” according to Duque.

What’s more, “we have put into operation the 'PAE at Home' [normally a public-school feeding program, but schools are closed during the crisis]  so that 6.2 million children can receive food at home -- and I want to highlight that we are already above 3.2 million” children receiving home-feeding support, he added.

Colombia’s Transport Ministry and the Agencia Nacional de Infraestructura (ANI, the national infrastructure agency) jointly announced April 16 a new financing deal to restart construction on the 114-kilometers-long “Autopista Rio Magdalena 2” highway project in Antioquia.

The COP$2.3 trillion (US$578 million) “fourth generation” (4G) highway project will connect northern Antioquia with the “Ruta del Sol” highway linking central Colombia with northern Caribbean freight ports.

The route first will link the towns of Remedios to Alto de Dolores (Maceo) and then Alto de Dolores onward to Puerto Berrío, Antioquia. Prior to this new finance deal, the project had only made 12% progress -- aside from the nearly-complete Rio Magdalena Bridge at Puerto Berrio.

As a result of this restart, 24 of the 29 nationwide “4G” projects soon will start to move ahead – although accompanied by new Health Ministry protocols to avoid Coronavirus infections.

“With the viability of this project, the connection between Medellín and Caucasia [Medio Magdalena region] on a new road will become a reality, reducing the travel time from six hours to four hours,” according to ANI.

Colombia’s Vice Minister of Infrastructure Olga Lucía Ramírez explained that thanks to an agreement with the construction concessionaire and workshops accompanied by the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic, “the execution and materialization of this great project will be guaranteed, mitigating adverse effects for the Colombian state and capitalizing savings that exceed COP$160 billion [US$40 million].”

“These projected savings are the result of the decrease in the remuneration that otherwise would be paid to the concessionaire for the execution of all the works, as well as for the operation and maintenance of the highway,” according to ANI.

“With the agreement with the concession, today the financial viability of the project is being guaranteed with a clear execution schedule.

“It should be remembered that this concession had a change in its shareholding composition and was recently acquired by the Australian capital fund, IFM Investors, who have investments around the world of more than US$100 billion, of which nearly US$40 billion have been invested in infrastructure projects,” the agency added.

Colombia’s Health Minister Fernando Ruiz Gómez announced April 16 that the current national quarantine against Coronavirus infections will continue past the presumptive April 27 deadline expiration.

However, many current restrictions gradually will be relaxed -- but only when accompanied by strict health protocols, he revealed.

As of April 16, Colombia had reported 3,233 Coronavirus cases nationally, of which 1,333 were in Bogota, 559 in Cali/Valle del Cauca and 308 in Medellin/Antioquia. So far, 144 deaths are reported from Coronavirus complications nationally, with 550 persons fully recovered to date, according to the Health Ministry.

Unlike the U.S., Europe, parts of Asia and elsewhere, Colombia has to date generally avoided a disastrous spread of Covid-19 -- thanks to a general quarantine that started March 20, the Minister noted.

“Colombia opted for a quarantine model in which we have part of the economy functioning: public services, agriculture, food, transportation, medical services and home deliveries, the parts of the economy that support the basics,” he said. “But a society cannot be kept permanently closed,” he added.

In contrast to the current situation in Colombia, countries such as the U.S., Italy and Spain unwisely maintained relatively “open economies” even as Coronavirus cases multiplied. But soon afterward, most of these previously uncautious governments “had to abruptly close down due to the impact of the epidemic curve,” he noted.

In contrast, Colombia took quarantine measures broadly and more promptly, while still maintaining essential services -- avoiding catastrophe, yet still maintaining crucial food, medicine, banking, transport, agriculture and public service sectors, he noted.

Now, “we are looking for strategies to open the economy together with [partial quarantine] isolation -- and how to establish this gradualness, because a closed economy throughout the year will generate severe problems with unemployment, poverty, hunger and all the implications for people’s health,” Ruiz added.

“What we are proposing from the Ministry is not the termination of the quarantine on April 27. That is not the strategy.

“The strategy is to maintain mandatory preventive isolation for specific groups and mandatory preventive quarantine of the entire population with the option of a very systematic, gradual and controlled global opening of some sectors of the economy -- but with the clarity that any eventuality or risk that could be generated will trigger a return to [a stricter] closure, as foreseen in the models that the INS [National Institute of Health] has developed,” he explained.

To enable gradual reopenings of more economic sectors, “new guidelines will have to be created, which, according to Decree 539, are made in a unified way by the Ministry of Health, because what we are looking for is that there be comprehensive protocols for all Colombians,” he concluded.

However, “we have areas in the country that are ahead [of the statistical infection-rate curve], others that are behind in number of cases and curve, but also rural areas where it is much less -- and that is because they live at a much greater distance [from cities], which makes the probability of contagion less,” he added.

50% Infection Rate Statistically Possible, Triggering Greater ICU Capacity Building

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry continues to run computerized statistical-probability scenarios tied to contingency plans for treating a potentially broader Covid-19 epidemic, the Minister explained.

“In order to establish the parameters for the needs at the territorial level, we took a [theoretical] indicator that showed that slightly more than 50% of the Colombian population is susceptible,” he said.

“The population that becomes infected in the first wave [under this statistical model] is lower because the proportion of our population that is younger is greater than in countries like China, Italy and France. Another factor that is analyzed is that we have a smoking rate – just 14% -- lower than other countries,” he said.

“The updated projection in our country is that 12% of those affected will be asymptomatic and 88% symptomatic. From the latter group, it is necessary to determine whether we’re dealing with [relatively greater numbers of] patients with mild symptoms -- requiring outpatient treatment -- or severe or critical patients – requiring hospitalization -- and thus determine the beds required in intermediate and intensive care.”

Because Coronavirus patients in “critical” state would require intensive care unit (ICU) segregation, the Ministry calculated potential expansion of ICU capacity in Colombia.

“Due to the structure of our health system, where the payment of services is made by event, the majority of providers in our country have had a very great incentive to take patients to intensive care. This led us to have more units of intensive care per capita than many countries,” Ruiz explained.

To address a broader epidemic, “we are not inventing new hospitals [but rather] an expansion of the [existing] network with provision of logistics, medical histories, systems and everything else necessary,” he concluded.

Notably, major cities including Medellin, Bogota, Cali and elsewhere are already moving quickly to increase ICU capacity for an expected increase in future “critical” Coronavirus cases. Medellin leads all Colombia in commercial production of specialized Coronavirus ventilator machines, due for start-up April 20.

It’s a tale of two countries: U.S. President Donald Trump announced April 15 that Coronavirus-crisis emergency loan funds to help U.S. businesses meet payroll are exhausted – just as 22 million more North Americans hit the unemployment lines -- yet Colombia simultaneously expanded its loan programs by COP$16 trillion (US$4.06 billion).

Colombia Treasury Minister Alberto Carrasquilla announced April 15 that the Board of Directors of the National Guarantee Fund (FNG) made the decision to “create three lines of credit and to implement them very quickly.”

The three new lines of credit “will benefit micro-, small- and medium-sized companies (MSMEs) and independent [sole-proprietor] entrepreneurs in the country, and will include loan guarantees of 90% and 80%,” according to the Treasury Ministry.

According to the Ministry, the first line of credits will help MSMEs to meet payrolls "by granting 90% [payback] loan guarantees.”

Through this program, banks and lenders know that “if something goes wrong, the first resources that are lost are not those of the financial institution, but those that the government put in the form of a guarantee,” he said.

“All those employers who are defending their workers and are honoring their labor contracts receive all that support. And the total sum of that line of credit is COP$12 trillion [US$3.05 billion],” he added.

A new, second line of credit worth COP$3 trillion (US$762 million) includes an 80% government loan guarantee and is directed to support working capital. Rationale: MSMEs are not only affected by payroll obligations, but also by “the need for working capital and the financing of their provisions, their suppliers, etcetera,” Carrasquilla said.

The third new line of credit totaling COP$1 trillion (US$254 million) carries an 80% loan guarantee and will be dedicated to helping independent entrepreneurs, he said.

Commissions on these loans will be slashed by 75% via government subsidiy, Minister Carrasquilla added.

Meanwhile, to date, the Treasury Ministry reports that because of new, recently liberalized lines-of-credit backed by the FNG, “Colombian banks have restructured COP$90 trillion [US$23 billion] in loans for the benefit of the productive sector.”

“At this time, Colombian banks have restructured more than 5.4 million credits” just between March 24 to April 10, Carrasquilla revealed.

In addition to more-generous loan terms thanks to new FNG programs, the government also has liberalized payments of income and wealth taxes to help businesses survive the crisis, he added.

The Minister also highlighted support from Banco de la República (the Colombian state bank) by making decisions to ease liquidity for financial institutions.

“The traditional standard in Colombia is [for banks] to have liquidity availability of the order of COP$8 trillion [US$2.03 billion] to COP$9 trillion [US$2.3 billion]. Right now, there are [funding] availabilities of more than COP$24 trillion [US$6.1 billion],” he added.

Colombia President Ivan Duque announced April 15 that while the current national Coronavirus quarantine is presumptively set to expire April 27, regular international passenger flights to and from Colombia nevertheless will continue to be banned.

Even after April 27 when the current national quarantine ends, “international flights will remain closed for a longer period of time,” Duque said, citing public health concerns.

As for domestic passenger flights within Colombia, “we are reviewing protocols in terms of health” and “looking at where there are areas that are currently free of the virus, and that we want to remain virus-free, and where we can work with local authorities” on the possibility of reopening some domestic passenger routes, he added.

“We are looking at how the [air passenger] protocols are going in many countries of the world. You have noticed that there are many countries that, for example, are already limiting the use of the middle seat [on a three-seat row], so that allows more distance. The use of a mask is being demanded, and food is no longer being distributed on flights of less than an hour or two.

“To the extent that we have certain, assured levels of control, where fever monitoring is also included, among others, I think we can take steps” toward eventual resumption of limited domestic air travel, he concluded.

Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero announced April 15 that local home-appliance manufacturing giant Haceb and local motorcycle assembler Auteco will launch manufacture and assembly of novel Coronavirus ventilator machines -- starting Monday, April 20.

Three prototypes have been developed in Medellin via a research and technology consortium organized by tech incubator Ruta N and Colombia’s national industrial-commercial trade association ANDI.

Coronavirus ventilators on the global market have been quoted as costing more than COP$150 million (US$38,000), the Mayor noted. But the locally produced ventilators are expected to cost a small fraction of that -- perhaps in the range of US$1,000 to US$2,000.

“The three prototypes, which are part of the '#InnspiraMED' project, were independently developed by Sampedro Medical Industries, the University of Antioquia and the EIA University, meeting all Invima [Colombia medical products regulator] quality and safety standards,” according to the Mayor’s office.

“This is going to allow us to save lives -- not just for Medellín and Antioquia, but for all of Colombia,” Quintero added.

In his April 15 announcement, the Mayor didn't specify exactly how many ventilators will be produced initially, the total expected forecast production, retail prices and commercial availability dates.  

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on April 14 issued an updated forecast concluding that the Coronavirus crisis likely will slash 2020 global gross domestic product (“PIB” in Spanish initials) to a net-negative 3% -- compared to 2.9% net-positive PIB growth in 2019.

Colombia likewise probably will suffer a net-negative 2.4% PIB in 2020, IMF's report concludes.

But Colombia's PIB contraction in 2020 looks far better than Latin America as a whole, which is expected to suffer a net-negative 5.2% PIB in 2020 -- more-than twice-as-bad as Colombia's situation, according to IMF.

Fortunately -- assuming the Coronavirus crisis eventually dissipates – Colombia is likely to see a PIB-growth rebound in 2021 to a net-positive 3.7%, better than the 3.4% PIB growth seen for Latin America as a whole in 2021, according to IMF’s latest World Economic Growth projections.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is inflicting high and rising human costs worldwide, and the necessary protection measures are severely impacting economic activity,” according to IMF's report.

“As a result of the pandemic, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by –3% in 2020, much worse than during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

“In a baseline scenario -- which assumes that the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts can be gradually unwound -- the global economy is projected to grow by 5.8% percent in 2021 as economic activity normalizes, helped by policy support.

“The risks for even more severe outcomes, however, are substantial. Effective policies are essential to forestall the possibility of worse outcomes, and the necessary measures to reduce contagion and protect lives are an important investment in long-term human and economic health.

“Because the economic fallout is acute in specific sectors, policymakers will need to implement substantial targeted fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to support affected households and businesses domestically,” the IMF report concludes.

In a related report on global government policy responses to the crisis, IMF noted that “to date, central banks have announced plans to expand their provision of liquidity -- including through loans and asset purchases -- by at least US$6 trillion and have indicated a readiness to do more if conditions warrant.

“As a result of these actions aimed at containing the fallout from the pandemic, investor sentiment has stabilized in recent weeks. Strains in some markets have abated somewhat and risk asset prices have recovered a portion of their earlier declines. Sentiment continues to be fragile, however, and global financial conditions remain much tighter compared to the beginning of the year,” IMF warned.

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About Medellin Herald

Medellin Herald is a locally produced, English-language news and advisory service uniquely focused upon a more-mature audience of visitors, investors, conference and trade-show attendees, property buyers, expats, retirees, volunteers and nature lovers.

U.S. native Roberto Peckham, who founded Medellin Herald in 2015, has been residing in metro Medellin since 2005 and has traveled regularly and extensively throughout Colombia since 1981.

Medellin Herald welcomes your editorial contributions, comments and story-idea suggestions. Send us a message using the "contact" section.

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