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Coronavirus: Why The Crisis In Colombia Could Be Colossal

With its oil-dependent economy and mostly privatized healthcare system, Colombia is particularly ill prepared for the pandemic.

Empty streets during the Coronavirus lockdown in Cali, Colombia
Empty streets during the Coronavirus lockdown in Cali, Colombia
Salomón Kalmanovitz


BOGOTÁ — The world economy is facing two enormous challenges. One is the pandemic, which can only be confronted by confining the populations of each country for a cautious period and will entail tremendous wealth loss as extreme therapeutic measures are taken. The second is the recent, brutal rupture of the quotas pact in OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

China, South Korea and possibly Italy are stabilizing the contagion and will thus be able to start recovering their previous production levels. The United States and the rest of Europe, meanwhile, must go through the storm of controlling the coronavirus, so difficult to detect, trace and quantify. The underdeveloped world, with its lesser defenses, is awaiting its turn. Everywhere, a pandemic-induced recession is in sight.

In the United States, the private healthcare system makes its population highly vulnerable to the pandemic: 28 million people with no medical insurance, 11 million illegal migrants and 25% of the workforce without access to paid sick leave. This population is a breeding ground for spreading the virus and hampering the ability to fight it effectively. The great nation has become even more vulnerable since the Trump administration cut funding for public heath and medical research centers.

The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Russia for a greater share of the oil market, and Vladimir Putin's intention of pummeling U.S. producers behind the costly fracking system, were the last straw for the market's fragile equilibrium, sending prices tumbling from around $65 a barrel to some $30 now. U.S. crude is said to require more than $45 a barrel just to cover production costs.

Citizens making purchases before returning to lockdown in Cali, Colombia — Photo: Nano Calvo/VM/ZUMA

Colombia is highly exposed to both these crises. Its health system is mostly private, which means a precarious state of health for the large part of the population — approximately 52% — that lives and works in informal conditions. The shantytowns that surround metropolitan zones not only favor viral contagion, they also hinder its detection. We do not have a central command system that would coordinate efforts to fight the pandemic.

Complicating things even more is Colombia's over-reliance on oil, which constitutes 61% of its exports. The fall in crude prices is depriving the government of some 6.5 trillion pesos (nearly $2 billion) in Ecopetrol dividends and similar sums in reduced taxes. Finance Minister Carrasquilla trusted oil prices would remain stable and cut corporate taxes by 12 trillion pesos this year. Between the two, the public deficit will rise to 2.5% of the GDP and force gigantic public spending cuts on the government.

The public debt exceeds 56% of the GDP and global markets are currently not prepared to risk extending more credit to a government that has been fiddling with deficit figures and fiscal rules. The U.S. dollar is trading at around 4,000 pesos, which will affect inflation seeing as we are more dependent on imports now, especially of food.

The government has no tax savings, furthermore, to make up for the sharp fall in demand being provoked by falling crude prices and rising forex prices. Nor does it have enough fiscal capacity to confront the pandemic should it invade the country with the viciousness it has in poor countries like Iran. Let us hope it does not come crashing our way.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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