Colombia, the pandemic before the pandemic


Flowers and photographs laid in a circle to commemorate the victims of state violence - MOVICE. Photo: Marcela Cardenas
Flowers and photographs at a MOVICE ceremony to commemorate the victims of state violence. Photo: Marcela Cardenas

By Marcela Cardenas

Protests marked the last quarter of 2019 throughout several countries in South America. The discontentment took to the streets and promised not to return home until it was heard and attended to.  Colombia was no exception. It shares the realities of the region; its people have a long list of demands and many reasons to raise their voices and take to the streets.  Why did it take so long for Colombia to protest?

The truth is, in Colombia, the historical list of social issues is so great that it is impossible to simplify and unify a list of demands representing all disadvantaged sectors of society. For years they have demanded the state vindicate their rights, but it has been absent and provided few guarantees.

Protests, demonstrations, public vigils, pot-clanging actions, curfew, and rising tension characterized the end of 2019. People brought their demands and filled the streets of the country, calling for a readjustment to the government’s national agenda. 

The actions of the people brought a breath of hope, bringing unity to the call for change in the country. These actions brought hope to those who have been making visible the dire inequalities in the country. They saw the Great National Strike as a spring of indignation.

The New Year was born in hope.

But unfortunately, 2020 had other plans for the world: COVID-19. The pandemic swept through the country, across urban and rural territories, infecting more than 220,000 people and causing more than 7000 deaths. But those who know the tragic history of Colombia remember there was a pandemic before COVID-19, with its own set of statistics.

Violence in Colombia is the old pandemic that spread through the streets of big cities and small towns. Through the desert and jungle. It infected the impoverished and those abandoned by the government. It left behind eight million victims.

Represented among these eight million are forced displacement and disappearances, homicides, torture, kidnappings, rape, silenced lives, destroyed families, a battered social fabric, and a shattered society. The problem with figures is that they only register a number; they do not speak of lives, of pain, of sadness. They represent everything, but they do not speak of anyone.

COVID-19 did not bring new violence to Colombia. Instead, it has intensified the already existing reality. The virus has confirmed that violence is not only hidden, but it impacts women in varied ways. The number of domestic violence cases since the quarantine began, has doubled compared to last year.  The murders of 120 women have been classified as femicides, calling into question the mantra, “staying home saves lives.” Another record of death in Colombia registers more than 166 social leaders assassinated in 2020.  And 36 former FARC combatants, signatories of the 2016 peace agreement, have been victims of targeted killings in 2020 alone.

The first pandemic—that of state violence—normalized corruption and gendered violence. It is a part of the daily routine. COVID-19, the second pandemic, became an exclusive priority; it replaced the demands of the people from the Great National Strike.  The demands for social change became invisible.

The deaths caused by the second pandemic do not have a lower value; that is a belief of those who think that some deaths hurt more than others. First-class deaths and second-class deaths do not exist. Any death is painful. Any preventable death caused by violence, neglect, corruption, or government abandonment hurts, and matters.

But in Colombia, focusing on the figures has made this country not feel grief when it comes to the death of 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000. Mothers who have lost sons and daughters to both these pandemics know the difference between each number. Their pain does not distinguish between categories; they feel each one. Therefore, the country should grieve as the mother of all who died, of all the disappeared. The world should speak more of lives, of struggles and legacies, rather than of numbers that do not commemorate anyone nor humanize barbarity.

When those of us who defend human rights speak, we do so from pain. We speak while holding a photograph of a missing person, or when we light a candle or call out in remembrance. We resist alongside those who have given everything, even their lives, even when all their land is stolen. But we also speak from hope, because we hope these stories end and that the storm stops, and the calm we do not know comes. We hope for the peace that is spoken of in books and studied by scholars. It is a peace that has to do more with social justice, one that guarantees the essential minimum without exception, gives access to dignified healthcare and education, and the right to live a life free of violence.

We cannot allow the virus to hide the pandemic before the pandemic. The government cannot use COVID-19 to evade its responsibilities. Its collaborators: corrupt politicians, armed actors, and war profiteers, need to be held accountable. Next time, we will be out on the streets sooner.


The article has been updated to reflect the current number of COVID-19 cases in Colombia, the number of femicides and the number of social leaders and former FARC combatants assassinated since the publication of April – June Newsletter on June 22, 2020.


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