CAMPOHERMOSO, Colombia – Many of the roughly 3,000 residents of this municipality without a single case of COVID-19 say their prayers to patron Saint Roch – often invoked against plague – have kept away the scourge that has claimed nearly 63,000 lives in Colombia, though a combination of a location off the beaten path and their own responsible behavior seem the more likely explanation.
Colombia, with 2.38 million confirmed cases, ranks third in Latin America in impact from COVID-19. Campohermoso is one of just two municipalities in the Andean nation to remain free of coronavirus more than a year into the pandemic.
Surprisingly, Campohermoso lies not in the middle of Amazonian jungle, but is instead tucked away in a valley just five hours by road from Bogota, though the only land route requires a vehicle with four-wheel drive.
Mayor Jaime Rodriguez says the community’s success is due not to “a secret formula,” but to authorities’ efforts to inform people, which included going door-to-door.
“It wasn’t easy, I can’t come out and say that people immediately accepted everything we told them,” he acknowledges to EFE. Every day, the mayor, the parish priest and staff from the town’s medical center reach out to the public via a local radio station.
He recounts that as the pandemic took hold in Colombia, the national government advised mayors to stockpile body bags. After some initial hesitation, he relayed the grim message from Bogota in a radio broadcast to convey the seriousness of the situation.
Authorities organized a mechanism to bring food and other necessities to people in rural areas so they wouldn’t need to come into town, distributed masks and obliged people entering Campohermoso from outside to quarantine.
On a recent day, a score of elderly people could be seen sitting on plastic chairs outside the health center in Campohermoso, some waiting to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while others were undergoing post-injection observation.
Most of them live more than an hour from town and made the trip aboard an ancient bus that runs just once a week.
Sabela Gallego, an octogenarian from the hamlet of Los Cedros, leans on her husband as she rises from her seat after being told she can go.
She says they will try to do a little shopping and take care of other business before it’s time to board the bus for the trip home.
The small urban core of Campohermoso is centered on a beautiful main square with large fountains that is home to the church, town hall and a number of small supermarkets and shops.
Pedro Huerta, 89, came into town to get vaccinated from the farm where he grows yucca, plantains, maize and coffee.
He is accompanied by the only one of grown children who hasn’t moved away.
“Over the last 20 years, the population of Campohermoso has diminished quite a lot, such that 20 years ago there approximately 15,000 inhabitants and today there are 3,400,” Mayor Rodriguez says.
And people over 65 make up 15 percent of that population, a much higher proportion of elderly than elsewhere in Colombia. Younger people tend to move away in search of jobs.
“Sadly, the lack of opportunities, as we don’t have trade or industry, forces that population group to move to the big cities,” Rodriguez says.
Farming and cattle ranching are the foundation of the local economy.
Even so, the mayor says, nobody in Campohermoso is going hungry, adding, “extreme poverty is very limited, but there is no wealth either.”