Focus: COVID-19 in Colombia

Prioritizing Health

Nov. 3, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic hit all countries across the world indiscriminately and Colombia was not spared. The peculiar virus reached Colombia in mid-February 2020 and started to spread slowly but surely until June 2020. In August 2020, however, the number of new cases and admissions to hospitals picked up rather quickly. The new coronavirus and its mutated variants have infected just under five million Colombians as of August 2021, claiming the lives of over 123,000 citizens, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The healthcare system in Colombia has put up a good fight to keep the spread of the virus in check. The nation's healthcare infrastructure is among the most developed in Latin America. The system is also highly inclusive thanks to the existence of a public health insurance known as Entidades Promotoras de Salud (EPS).

Despite Colombia's high-quality healthcare infrastructure, fending off the COVID-19 virus has not been an easy task. By placing a prolonged strain on the nation's healthcare providers, the pandemic has weakened the system, and the number of new cases is still on the rise.

Colombia's measures against COVID-19 started quite early. In October 2020, the government earmarked the sum of USD3.7 billion—equal to 1.5% of the nation's GDP—for the implementation of COVID-19 control plans. At the same time, cash payments to the underprivileged classes, tax deferments, and the reinforcement of the healthcare infrastructure began. The nation's healthcare system has been in battle formation ever since.

While the Ministry of Health has been fighting the outbreak, other ministers including the Ministries of Labor, Commerce, Industry and Tourism have come up with relief packages that were announced one after another to save the nation's SMEs and tourism sector, which make up the backbone of Colombia's economy.

The ultimate resolution for putting an end to the outbreak, however, is nothing other than a nationwide vaccination program, which began in March 2021, almost as soon as the first vaccines were cleared for human consumption by the WHO.
As of August 2021, over 31 million doses of vaccine have been given to the country's citizens, with 13.5 million people (27%) of the country's population of 50 million being fully vaccinated with two consecutive doses of various COVID-19 vaccines.
The country has used some of the best vaccines that money can buy including the ones developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, Modena, and AstraZeneca. Simultaneously, the reinforcement of the healthcare system continues, as there will be new admissions to Colombia's hospitals until the nation's entire population have received their two doses of vaccine.

The healthcare sector has adapted itself with notable agility to quicken Colombia's response to the outbreak. A 2021 scholarly study by Turner, Niño, and coworkers, published in the journal BMC Healthcare Services Research, found that the nation's “healthcare organizations have undergone organizational change to respond to COVID-19. This pandemic has presented challenges for employee adjustment, with impacts on the availability and coordination of human resources in healthcare.”
The organizational readjustments mentioned in the study include making an effort to retain the healthcare professionals working in the country in these challenging times, paying attention to the protection of the healthcare personnel who are themselves in great danger given their exposure to the virus, and quick training of new human resources to prevent the occupational burnout of the current personnel.

With regard to the latter point, medical students in their 5th to 7th year, commonly referred to as interns, have been mobilized to come to the aid of fully qualified doctors under the current circumstances, and these medical students have been given rather more authority in the diagnosis and prognosis of patients than they would normally have.

Medical students are working shoulder-to-shoulder with their superiors in conventional hospitals and emergency care units which have been set up temporarily to help the COVID-19 patients across Colombia. This can have a character-building impact on medical students and give Colombia a generation of new doctors with a lot of hands-on experience and capable of working accurately under pressure.

This very point was also confirmed by Sergio Parra, rector of Fundación Universitaria de Ciencias de la Salud, during an interview with TBY when he pointed out that “I take it more as an opportunity than as a challenge. It has been a year full of new experiences to learn how to adapt to uncertain circumstances.”

Colombia has prepared and implemented an acceptable response plan to the pandemic given its limited resources as a developing economy. It is true that many lives have been lost in Colombia during the pandemic, but then again lives were lost in more developed economies such as the US and the UK. All things considered, Colombia's healthcare system has shown merit and courage by quickly rising to the occasion in a manner that exceeded expectations.

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