Colombia is a huge country and Nariño is one of the thirty-two departments it has. Its capital is San Juan de Pasto. It is located in the extreme southwest of the country.
It limits with the Cauca Valley in the North, to the East with Putumayo, to the South with the Republic of Ecuador and to the West with the Pacific Ocean.
The Nariño department is divided into 64 municipalities and 230 townships.
It has a diverse geography and a varied climate. It has three major characteristics: the pacific plains, the Andean region and the amazon slope. Nariño is essentially an agricultural and livestock department.
Some of its main touristic attractions are: the Galeras volcano, the La Cocha lagoon and the Corota Isle.
It offers rivers, lagoons, nature reserves, canyons, beaches, volcanoes, and moors, among many other natural wonders.
Nariño has an immense potential, not only because of its geography and climate but mainly because of its people.
The current problem
The SARS COV 2, or Covid-19, has created many problems in the department. Perhaps, the main challenge of Nariño in the face of the pandemic is the cases coming from the border with Ecuador.
Let’s take into account that Colombia is approximately 532 Kilometers and 200 nautical miles. With Ecuador there are 175 km of land and sea borders, the rest is huge. This causes the infection to be present at unexpected times and places since there are many irregular steps.
We cannot ignore that Ecuador has one of the highest rates of infection in Latin America. We are talking about 132.9 per 100,000 inhabitants.
But, the concern has to do with the fact that more than 50% of Ipiales cases are imported. This means that they came from a country where the virus exists, such as Ecuador, which borders with Colombia. Presently the cases are inbound of the region.
The pandemic has gradually expanded in the national territory, however, there are some departments where rapid growth has been evident.
Some of the most affected areas
When the coronavirus broke out in Colombia, one of the government’s concerns was the border with Venezuela. However, the situation on the border in the South West of the country, the border with Ecuador, is very serious.
Let’s start with the fact that in the province of Guayas, the epicenter of infections in Ecuador, people die in their homes. Hospitals do not give enough to house infected people.
There has been a significant increase in COVID-19 cases in the department. Most of the cases are located in Tumaco and on the Pacific coast. It is considered that 60% of infections are focalised in the port.
And, this was to be expected since the health crisis has generated a massive exodus towards Colombia. As a matter of fact, there are 37 irregular crossings (between both countries) that connect with various municipalities of Nariño. Some people arrive by land and others by sea. For this reason, Tumaco has become the receiving municipality of Colombian-Ecuadorians residing in Esmeraldas and San Lorenzo.
Tumaco is a municipality located in the Nariño department. It is only 300 km from Pasto and close to the border with Ecuador.
They have more than 200,000 inhabitants and a high level of poverty. This has caused Tumaco to become a breeding ground for the coronavirus to spread. A huge problems amongst the Tumaco residents is that they do not abide by the social distancing rules.
At this time, the two hospitals in the region, the San Andrés Hospital and the Divino Niño Hospital Center, are overflowing with pacients, they are at the limit of their capacities.
The official border is closed but we know there are people crossing over because the infected cases augments. There are 175 km in the border, it is very difficult to control everything and we know that they pay between 4 or 5 million pesos so that campesions let them walk through their fields.
They are jam-packed by infected patients. If more cases arise, the only options they have is to move people to Pasto or Cali.
When we spoke with Milena Paredes, a doctor and volunteer at Nariño Somos Tod@s, she told us that although she does not excuse this disobedience, she understands the reason why it takes place.
It is simple since many people live on day-to-day sales or incomes and asking them to stay home without leaving implies that they do not have money to live.
On the other hand, one of the issues of greatest concern in Tumaco is that due to the precarious health system conditions, there is the possibility that several people die and do not have a due process of burial.
Another of the highly affected places is Ipiales. Ipiales is one of the two municipalities in the department of Nariño. It is located on the border with Ecuador, exactly 3 kilometers away, and is relatively close to the Pacific Ocean coast (approx 5 hours by bus).
The fact is that each case in Ipiales represents a focus of attention, due to its border condition with Ecuador.
It should be kept in mind that Ipiales is an obligatory step of trade, tourism and exchange with the neighbouring country and with Peru. It must be noted that on a normal weekend, about 10,000 Ecuadorians can reach Ipiales for commercial reasons.
The situation of the AWÁ indigenous community is also something to keep in mind. Many of them do not speak Spanish, live in multi-family houses and confuse the symptoms of Covid-19 with symptoms of other respiratory diseases, diseases that constantly attack them.
But, as if the health emergency was not enough, it must be added that both in Tumaco and in the indigenous AWÁ community, groups outside the law are issuing threats. The threats are simple: if they are infected with the virus, they must leave or they will die.
Given that they want to generate more fear, they have left dead bodies on the street so that everyone is clear that it is no joke and should be taken seriously. And, as a consequence, infected people in both Tumaco and the AWÁ indigenous community are not saying they have symptoms, they do not visit health centers and prefer to stay home.
Considering the overwhelming situation we are facing due to the Covid – 19 pandemic, many have developed initiatives to provide aid. This time talking about the Nariño Somos Tod@s initiative, a citizen initiative that aims to help the Nariño Department.
This initiative is the result of the feeling of impotence in the face of the complex public health challenge that it faces today due to the spread of COVID-19, and the social and economic challenge that it represents.
Laura Viera: Who is Nariño Somos Tod@s ?
Lorena Salazar, co-founder NST: The first thing is to state that we are not an organization, we are a citizens initiative. We are a platform for quick strategies and solutions that contribute to the prevention, care and control of the virus, as well as to provide solutions to some social, economic, ecological and cultural demands of the population and the Region.
The goal of helping others is simple. But, as we all know, carrying this out is quite complicated. The idea is to achieve social mobilisation and construction of a citizen platform to support the Department of Nariño.
With the provision of medical protection equipment, respirators and other elements that will be delivered to the Hospitals and Health Centers that are required.
We are connected with universities, workshops, institutions, the private sector and people who want to help us achieve our goals. All of them have helped us. – Milena Paredes –
Laura Viera A: How do you want to support the Nariño department?
Lorena Salazar, co-founder NST: We are supporting in different ways. But, the most important thing is the provision of medical protection equipment, respirators and items that doctors and nurses may need. We also help with markets and transmit health precaution information.
Laura Viera A: How do you manage to help?
Milena Paredes, physician and NST volunteer: The initiative is divided into different committees in order to help more efficiently, better organize ourselves and have a better emphasis on our objective. The idea is to hold meetings to see how Covid affects us in the health sector, but also in culture, the economy, to create strategies and to disseminate information.
I am on three committees. The first of them is the scientist, where are the doctors, lawyers, economists, statisticians, among others. I am also in the distribution and endowment committee in which we handle the entire issue of donations, in which we create different types of strategies and campaigns to be able to receive donations not only monetary but also material. So, we do a study to see what they need most in hospitals, we look at the amount of money we have and we allocate it to help. Finally, I am on the crowd founding committee, which is all of us from Nariño living in Europe.
They aren’t massive donations but the donations we get do help any person that needs them. – Milena Paredes –
Laura Viera A: The department of Nariño is very large, what have been some of the problems you have encountered?
Lorena Salazar, co-founder NST: Yes, it is very big. Well, look, there are people who do not have access to Internet or TV, so the information regarding the Covid 19 does not reach them. So that’s an issue and that’s why we try to reach them with other methods like radio
A key piece of information during the pandemic situation is that the Nariño health system is not prepared for the flow of infection and treatment that Covid-19 patients need. The system does not provide a vast amount of normal care in addition to the crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, we want to equip health personnel with 20,400 personal protection elements (PPE). The elements of personal protection refer to face masks, gowns, coveralls, protection shields, hats, leggings, alcohol. So far we have 6,219 units, approximately 25% of our goal.
Laura Viera A: In the specific case of the endowment of personal protection, how are you working?
Lorena Salazar, co-founder NST: Well, we have contacted institutions and people who have helped us with the materials and the production of masks, overalls, etc. Afterwards, we organize ourselves to take it to the places where they are needed.
Laura Viera A: What is happening in the Nariño department right now?
Milena Paredes, physician and NST volunteer: Well, it is very sad, the situation is complex as in other parts of the country. We continue to be a forgotten department in Colombia.
In times of crisis, political leaders need to step up and leave behind all partisan differences they need to move towards the consolidation of viable proposals in order to improve the conditions of the nariñenses (people from Nariño).
The Department of Nariño has 64 municipalities, less than half have an intensive care unit.
United we do the impossible
There is a common saying that has been heard and used in all corners of the world at different times in history: “united we are more”. These words are truer than ever, hopefully they are more than just words that the wind takes away.
The Nariño department continues to be invisible to Colombia. Sad, absurd but true! This is a reality that must change because they are a department with a lot to contribute but also because in the current situation if we do not support each other, if we forget about our neighbours, we cannot overcome the health crisis.
But the truth, in any case, is that today’s social panorama is bleak. The pain of the COVID-19 pandemic will persist long after virus remission.
When the immediate crisis is over, many people will have suffered unimaginable losses. Large numbers will have lost loved ones, vast numbers will have become unemployed and perhaps homeless, and several hundred million will have experienced the anguish and loneliness of social isolation.
Although the pandemic has exposed ugly attitudes, it is also being characterized by millions of small acts of kindness that favor the union of communities. Initiatives like Nariño Somos Tod@s, is a comforting act of solidarity that, although it started because of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic, will continue for a long time after and will be a large-scale action.