CARTAGENA, Colombia – The city port of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast has been promoted to the world as the jewel of Colombian tourism.
But a hidden side of the city has been revealed during the coronavirus pandemic, that of an unequal metropolis with high rates of poverty, beset by corruption and an insufficient health system.
The picture-postcard cobbled streets of the walled Old Town normally crowded with tourists are now deserted, which reveals another of its problems: few locals live in the city center as most residences have been turned into holiday flats.
Most of the colorful 16th century colonial buildings have been converted into exclusive restaurants, luxurious hotels and bars for tourists, residents feel that this part of the city no longer belongs to them.
The other side of Cartagena, which the tourists seldom ever visit, pulses with its African heritage and the rhythm of champeta.
It was this part that David Munera, secretary of the interior to the mayor’s office, was referring to when he described the city as made up of “some belts of poverty and misery” that are “too big.”
He said that in these neighborhoods more than 60% of workers are informally employed.
“There are hundreds of thousands of men and women who work on a day-to-day basis and that obviously has the consequence that a large population of the city live in poverty,” he added.
People living in this part of Cartagena often have no access to basic public services and live in houses built from scrap metal, plastic and wood sometimes on dirt streets without sewage systems.
The city has the highest poverty rates among the main Colombian cities, affecting more than 26% of its 900,000 inhabitants, according to a study by the Cartagena Como Vamos program.
Javier Ortiz, who has a history PhD from El Colegio de Mexico, said Cartagena’s poverty is an inheritance of its historic slavery.
“Inequality in Cartagena has been installed since its origins, its majority Afro-descendant inhabitants have always been at a disadvantage compared to a minority, which has always enjoyed educational and employment opportunities,” he told EFE.
Munera said another problem in the city is corruption which has seen eight mayors pass through office since 2012 and one of them sent to jail.
This has left the city practically in ruins with numerous judicial processes that prevent the current mayor from fully executing his government plan, according to the official.
He said that this corruption has meant Cartagena does not have a “hospital network, it does not have health centers, public hospitals (are) absolutely broken.”
“So if we unite poverty and political corruption and a pandemic like this catches us, it obviously puts us in an absolutely unfavorable situation,” he added.
The city’s social inequalities, increased in recent decades by the arrival of thousands of families displaced by armed conflict and the Venezuelan crisis, have made Cartagena a breeding ground for COVID-19 infections.
Overcrowding is terrible in many neighborhoods with seven or eight people often living in one room, Munera explained.
Capacity in intensive care units in the city has already exceeded 86%.
Cartagena had 3,037 confirmed cases and 140 deaths as of June 1, according to Colombia’s National Institute of Health
The best way to reduce contagion is social distancing and the mayor’s office has said it will hire 300 community leaders to carry out an educational campaign.
“An entire organization chart is being prepared to visit neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, house by house to try to create this citizen awareness of why one should be in isolation,” Munera said.
The mayor’s office has also said it will provide food parcels for those who live in neighborhoods that are put under lockdown.