QUIBDO, Colombia – Pilots from the Aeroclub de Colombia aviation training institute depart every day from an airport in Bogota with coronavirus aid for the Andean nation’s most remote regions – far-flung places stretching from the northwestern jungle department of Choco to Amazonian hamlets on the banks of the Vaupes River.
Around 50 pilots have been offering their services voluntarily in recent weeks, using the high-elevation Guaymaral airport as a home base and transporting government-provided medical supplies and occasionally health care personnel.
One of those flights traveled on Wednesday to Quibdo, Choco’s capital, to help bolster the precarious health system of that Pacific department, which thus far has reported 544 coronavirus cases and 18 COVID-19-related deaths.
After a one-hour, nine-minute trip, three twin-engine Piper Navajo and Piper Seneca III planes landed at Quibdo’s El Caraño Airport. One of them was filled with medical supplies that the pilots had loaded inside the seven-seat aircraft.
The government assistance also is allowing regional authorities to expedite the processing of coronavirus tests, which is seen as necessary to keep the pandemic in check.
“We at Aeroclub are working with the president’s office to provide medical assistance and carry all kinds of protection kits to the most remote regions. We’re bringing back coronavirus samples to be analyzed,” pilot Manuel Antonio Lince told an EFE team who accompanied them on the flight.
In attending to the health emergency in the country’s most remote areas, these pilots have flown around 200 flights and logged more than 500 flight-hours since March 27, two days after the start of the nationwide quarantine.
“The National Institute of Health tells us every day that it needs to bring or take samples from Mitu, from (Puerto) Carreño, from Leticia, and we go to those regions,” Ernesto Perez, a pilot and member of Aeroclub de Colombia, told EFE, referring to the capitals of the remote departments of Vaupes, Vichada and Amazonas, respectively.
One of the areas benefiting from this initiative has been Choco, the department with Colombia’s highest monetary poverty rate (58 percent).
Choco’s 30 municipalities are served by only six first-level (basic) hospitals and one second-level (intermediate) hospital; those medical centers are poorly equipped and insufficient to meet the needs of the department’s 530,000 inhabitants.
Choco’s acting governor, Jefferson Mena, said upon receiving the supplies that the situation in the department is “alarming” and warned of the rapid spread of the virus in municipalities that were free of COVID-19 just a few days ago.
“I want to say thank you to organizations like Aeroclub because this is a very poor department that has been looted, exploited and robbed. The living conditions for citizens are deplorable,” Mena said.
The aid is transported by 27 private planes that, unlike government aircraft, are able to land even in regions with precarious airport infrastructure.
“Most of us are businessmen (normally involved in) other activities … but at this time, because of the ease with which we can access lots of places, we’re devoted to this mission,” Perez said.
The pandemic has exacerbated the precarious health conditions in Choco and brought to light severe problems such as the non-payment of medical personnel and the plundering of public funds.
“I found a department with very weak institutions and very high levels of corruption,” said Mena, who was named acting governor after Colombia’s Inspector General’s Office suspended Gov. Ariel Palacios over alleged irregularities in a health care contract signed in April.
The health care situation in Choco is so fragile that, despite the severe obstacles involved in transporting patients, some are being taken to hospitals in Medellin and other cities.
Among Choco’s active coronavirus cases, 434 patients are currently recovering at home, 16 have been hospitalized and eight are in intensive care.
Colombia’s Health Ministry six days ago sought to ease the situation there by sending three ventilators to the ICU of Quibdo’s Hospital San Francisco de Asis, which had never in its history had access to a mechanical respiration device.
The regional government in Choco also has responded to residents’ non-compliance with the quarantine by stiffening restrictions on mobility.
“For the people of Choco the coronavirus doesn’t exist. For the people of Choco the pandemic doesn’t exit. For the people of Choco it’s more important to go out and do what they can to make a living; for the people of Choco there hasn’t been a quarantine … and that explains this growth in infections,” the acting governor said.
In a time of crisis, these humanitarian flights offer hope to the residents of Choco and other Colombian regions that are geographically remote and historically have been neglected by the national authorities.