Atlantic Council

Front Page Event

President Iván Duque: Colombia’s COVID-19 response and strategies moving forward


President Iván Duque,

President of the Republic of Colombia

Introductions By:

Frederick Kempe,

President & CEO,

Atlantic Council

Adrienne Arsht,

Executive Vice Chair, Atlantic Council;

Moderated By:

Jason Marczak,

Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center,

Atlantic Council

Time:  4:00 p.m. EDT

Date:  Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Transcript By

Superior Transcriptions LLC

FREDERICK KEMPE:  Hello and welcome to the launch of Atlantic Council Front Page, our new live ideas platform spotlighting top government, business, civil society, and thought leaders from every corner of the world.  I’m Fred Kempe.  I’m president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

It is fitting that this inaugural edition of Atlantic Council Front Page will be with a prominent and dynamic and effective head of state, President Iván Duque of Colombia.  In those inspiring opening scenes you just saw, it was President Duque in action tackling the public-health scourge of our times.

We are confronting one of the most profound global challenges imaginable, with significant impact on health, on the economy, and national security.  It is testing individuals, communities, countries, and the world order as we know it.  Atlantic Council Front Page will provide an essential forum for navigating not only COVID-19, but also the myriad challenges and opportunities defining the 21st century.

The mission of the Atlantic Council is to seek solutions and inform strategies to shape a better future together with partners and allies, and few are as important as Colombia, Mr. President.  This collaborative mission has never been more significant.  So it is fitting that we are hosting you, President Iván Duque of Colombia, to launch this series.  It is an honor to have you with us.

Today’s event will be livestreamed not only on our website, but across major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  So please engage with us using the hashtag – the brand-new hashtag #ACFrontPage – #ACFrontPage.

Before we start today’s show, I would like to thank and salute Adrienne Arsht, Atlantic Council executive vice chair and founder of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.  This remarkable philanthropist and businesswoman improves everything she touches.  She has made our work on Colombia and Latin America possible and impactful.  Over to you, Adrienne.

ADRIENNE ARSHT:  Welcome, Mr. President.  It’s really very much of an honor to have you with us, and especially as our first member to attend this leadership forum.  Our relationship with Colombia is very, very special, and your presence today supports that.

PRESIDENT IVÁN DUQUE:  Thank you so much, Adrienne.  Thank you, Fred.

MR. KEMPE:  Thank you, Mr. President.

So today’s discussion does kick off the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center Leaders of America Series as well.  You and your administration have done such a great job dealing with a crisis with limited resources, implementing a comprehensive range of policies to flatten the curve and with an eye to keeping the economy afloat – in particular, looking at the plight of the most vulnerable.  As you know, through our U.S.-Colombia Task Force, the Atlantic Council works to ensure the prioritization of strong, nonpartisan support for our two countries’ relationship.

With that, I turn it over to Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

JASON MARCZAK:  Well, thanks, Fred.

And buenos tardes, Mr. President.  Thanks so much for joining us today.

I’m speaking to you from my home office just out of Washington, D.C.  Mr. President, where are you joining us from?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  I’m here at the – at the House of Nariño, in the presidential house.  So this is a great honor for me to participate and connect from the house of all Colombians.

MR. MARCZAK:  Well, thank you very much, Mr. President.  It’s great that could take a half-hour at this critical moment.

I want to – a few different – a few questions for you.  I want to kick off by asking you about your approach and results to coronavirus.  Through your leadership, Colombia acted promptly to restrict mobility and adopt collective isolation measures.  In a country of 50 million people, I believe there’s now 2,800 confirmed cases and just over a hundred deaths.  Despite being among the first countries to report confirmed cases in Latin America, Colombia is number eight with regard to the number of cases across the region.

First question for you, Mr. President:  What elements of Colombia’s strategy do you see as being most effective in attempting to reduce the coronavirus impact?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Well, let me first of all begin, Jason, by thanking you, thanking Fred, thanking Adrienne, and thanking all the Council for inviting me to this series.

And I shall begin by saying that sometimes I get a little bit worried when I have some instinct calls.  And by the end of last year, at the very end of the year, I was with my family at the equivalent of Camp David that we have here in Colombia, in Cartagena, and I was watching the news, and I saw what was happening in China.  So, since the 1st and 2nd of January, I called the minister of health and I said, well, I think we have to start monitoring what is – what is happening there.  So we called the World Health Organization and we started trying to analyze what was going on.  And when we started seeing the spread of the virus, that is it began with two countries, three countries, four countries, then we decided to start having a level of information that was updated on a daily basis, and we started to ask questions about the virus.

And what drove me to that circumstance is that last year, by the end of September, there was a very interesting report that was published by the World Health Organization, leaded by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, where they used to call world leaders to be cautioned that there might be a pandemic in the – in the closer future.  And there was an action plan that had to be adopted on September 2020.

So thinking on all that, when we started seeing what was going on, we were one of the first countries in Latin America to establish specific migration questions in the airports.  Then we passed through migration checkpoints.  And when people came from countries where there was a presence of coronavirus, we asked them to go in quarantine.

And then, when we started seeing the cases growing in Europe, we limited the visitors coming from European countries where there was a major spread of the virus.  Later, what we did is we put a ban to international travelers to Colombia, only was limited to Colombian nationals and to residents.  And then we decided to shut down the whole international flights to Colombia.  We closed the borders.

And when we started seeing the first nine cases, 10 cases, 15 cases, we decided to take kids out of school and youngsters out of universities for a period that will go initially to the 27th of April, that we have now extended it to May.  We said no bars, no discos, no stadiums, no concerts.  We were putting more social-distancing elements.

And finally, when I saw what was going on in other countries, I decided to call for the national quarantine.  And we have been now in our 20th day of the national quarantine for the first time in 200 years of history, and now we have extended it to April 27th.

We wanted to have some major outcomes out of all decisions – of all those decisions.  The first:  to be able to contain the exponential growth of the virus.  The second thing:  to prevent that the health system will collapse.  And most importantly:  be able to save lives by trying to flatten the curve.

So far, I think the policies have been working.  And especially when we do the counterfactual analysis with the first models that were designed by the health authorities, this is a continuous work that we have to monitor every single day.

And let me just finish this comment by saying there’s a reason why for countries like Colombia it is smarter to act drastically and fast.  It is because we have limited capacities in our health system.  We don’t have the health system that you have in the States or that European countries have, although we have more than, you know, 5,300 ICUs and we’re one of the largest Latin American countries with ICUs per million inhabitants.  But even that, we have to at least triplicate the numbers.  So I think all the time that we have been able to save by flattening the curve is also, for us, to strengthen our capacities and be able to have more testing capacity so that we’re more effective.

MR. MARCZAK:  And Mr. President, as the virus continues to spread across the region, across the world, what’s maybe the primary lesson learned in mitigation that you have to share from Colombia’s experience?  I heard a few come out in that answer, but what would you say is your primary lesson learned?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Well, I would say that, you know, let me – let me address all the challenges we face.

The first thing is, this is a crisis like nothing we had ever seen because this is not only a pandemic; it has become an oil-price crisis, it has become a world trade crisis, it has become a world aggregated demand crisis, and it is becoming a financial markets crisis.  And so it’s like the combination of everything we had seen in the past, you know, and with something that make(s) things even more complicated.  And it is that it’s hurting us at the same time globally.

So every one of us – I mean, and we’re talking about the countries – we’re all fighting for the same products to face the challenge.  So there is a shortage in ventilators, for example.  And I was mentioning to some of my colleagues this morning that on an annual basis there were something close to 55,000 ventilators produced worldwide, and just the demand that we have now, it’s 2.4 million.  And some of the countries that are producers of ventilators have banned their exports because they want to use them to protect their citizens.  So this even is – this is creating even more complications.  And the same thing is happening with PPE, and the same thing is happening with radioactics (sp) for testing and PCRs and molecular testing.

So the major challenge we face in particularly developing countries is that we’re fighting for the same elements to face the pandemic that the richest countries are also needing.  So this I consider is one of the major challenges.  And that’s why we have to be very smart with the limited toolkit that we have.  And that’s why we had to act faster on social distancing, because when we look at the counterfactual, if we didn’t take the measures that we have already taken, we will be maybe at 900,000 cases in Colombia and we will have our health system absolutely collapsed.

MR. MARCZAK: Thank you very much.  An incredibly important answer and incredibly important – (inaudible) – distinct challenges a country like Colombia faces versus other countries in the world.

I want to shift to the economy.  Colombia today enters week four of mandatory quarantine in an effort to contain COVID-19.  And you’ve implemented a series of measures to both protect public health but also try to mitigate the negative implications of the quarantine.  And just recently your finance minister was projecting new numbers for Colombia’s economy that are a further revision downward.

I want to ask you, as around the world leaders like yourself are now thinking about strategies to reactivate the economy, what is your thinking on steps that could be taken to reactivate Colombia’s economy while at the same time continuing to protect public health?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Well, that’s a great question, Jason.  But let me begin by saying that one of the most complicated situations that I have faced maybe in the last month and a half is that you see sometimes that there are people who want to take political advantage out of the crisis.

So I have said that it is an absurd dilemma talking about lives versus the economy or life versus social development.  Obviously, there’s no economy that will work with bad health or losing of – massive losing of lives.  But also if you don’t have a vibrant economy, you won’t be able to keep on improving the health-care conditions.  So it’s a false dilemma.

And what we have to think, it’s how do we make both issues concomitant, and how do we make them necessary both at the same level for our society?  So when I had to take the decision about the national quarantine – and I think it’s the most complicated decision ever made by a Colombian president, because we’re talking about basically shutting down the economy for a long period – but the first thing we said is we have to do this in a smart way.

So, yes, we declared the national quarantine, but we kept open sectors that were crucial for the Colombian economy and for the supply chain.  So we preserved all the supply chain of food.  We had all the services.  We had health services, banking services, media, government services.  And with that, at least we had 50 percent of Colombia’s GDP that was smartly open to be able to have the country in a calm situation facing a national quarantine.

Now, the second thing that we had to face is that in Latin America our economies unfortunately are very informal.  So we’re talking about maybe 50 percent of the working force in Colombia is informal.  And then you have people who are at the bottom of the pyramid that will take the biggest hit out of the situation.

So what we tried to do is have the social safety net very well designed and active to provide the conditional cash transfers to the poorest of the poor.  And plus we identified that there were 3 million Colombians, Colombian families, that had never received a conditional cash transfer or were not in a social program from the state.

And in just two weeks, working with the financial system, with the cell-phone operators, we identified them and we sent them a cash transfer of around $70 for them to be able to have food in the midst of this situation.  So we got to coverage at least 10 million families.  That’s around 30 million people in a country that has 50 million people.  So we tried to have the safety net working for them.

And in addition to that, we saw that there were some poorest-of-the-poor families that were – didn’t have access to groceries.  So we distributed 1 million grocery packages for the poorest of the poor in the country.  And we also decided to create a line of monetary support to SMEs to protect at least 90 percent of the employment.

So we introduced liquidity from the central bank, but we also introduced a guarantee program where we guarantee 90 percent of all the payments that most of those firms have to do to preserve jobs through the banking system.  We also issued an 80 percent guarantee to protect independent workers and other workforce and individuals.  And we have also allowed some flexibility in the pension system so people don’t contribute to pension for three months.  They get that cash.

So I think when we look at the whole population, I would consider that around 70 to 80 percent of the population will have access to a certain package for them to go through the crisis.

And last but not least – and I think that’s the other essential part of the question – is how do we look forward?  And what we have said is that we have to move to a collaborative, preventive isolation that is based on smart legislation.  So we are creating protocols for different sectors, and we want to start opening the economy after the 27th of April.  And by that, I go back to my phrase we want to reopen productive life, but unfortunately not social life, because until there’s a vaccine or until there’s a treatment, the virus is going to be around for at least one year. 

So if we start to do this opening process smartly, with the right protocols, I think we can also preserve lives and protect the health-care system.

MARCZAK:  Thank you very much, Mr. President; a real focus on the most vulnerable as well as SMEs, as well as keeping critical elements of the economy online, and a phased-in approach to reopening the economy.

I want to – if you have questions, please feel free to submit your questions via the Q&A function.

I want to turn, Mr. President, to Venezuela.  The world looks at Colombia with great respect for the work done to welcome nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have fled the Maduro regime to your country.  And our Resilience Center is on the front lines of helping to provide direct support to some of these migrants and refugees.  This is a population that’s particularly vulnerable at this time.

How are you looking at balancing the needs of Venezuelan migrants and refugees with other demands at this moment?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Well, Jason, that has been one of the maybe most complicated issues that we have had to deal in the midst of all this crisis, because we have for sure received almost 2 million Venezuelan brothers and sisters in Colombia.  And we have been able so far to allow them access to the social safety net.

But since there’s no sound epidemiological contagion system in Venezuela, since there is a lack of information in Venezuela, and also since the country doesn’t have more than 200 ICUs for the whole population, I had to take the toughest decision, which was to shut down the border.  And I had always had an open-border policy so that we can work with migrants.  And, in fact, we continue to support migrants inside Colombia.  But that had to be a decision to protect lives and to protect the health-care system.

Nevertheless, I have instructed the ministry of health so that, through the Pan American Health Organization, we continue to share our epidemiological analysis and some of the best practices that we have applied.  But we have also to strengthen the capacity to attend not only migrants, but also population in the border-zone areas in order to prevent coronavirus to spread.  Because we can take all the good decisions we can, but considering that this is a very large border that has more than 2,000 kilometers and, you know, there are areas that are – that are very weak, obviously, we really want to prevent the virus to spread in those areas because they also coincide with areas where we have a poor health-care system.

So we’re trying to combinate (sp) all elements.  But I must say this in a blunt way, Jason.  I think the whole donor community and the international community that had been not too aggressive in terms of mobilizing assistance for the migrants, now, in this situation, I think something has to be done because when we compare what the migrants have received in the midst of this crisis in Venezuela, it doesn’t get to $200 per migrant, and when you compare that to Syria, we’re talking about something close to $2,000 per migrant.

So we have taken most of the burden.  The same situation is happening in Ecuador, in Chile, and in Peru, and we have to manage two crises at the same time.  We have to manage the migration crisis and at the same time we have to manage the crisis that is – that is derived from the pandemic.  So we have to be able to control the spread and to flatten the curve also in the border zone areas.

MR. MARCZAK:  Thank you, Mr. President.  I want to shift.  You mentioned international cooperation.  You’ve met virtually with a number of regional leaders since the outbreak started, and international cooperation will, of course, be fundamental in both the short and long term.  What might be some of the steps that should be taken from a regional level in Latin America but also at a global level to better work together to contain the virus, provide health care support, and eventually reactivate economies?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Jason, I must say this maybe bluntly, and we have tried to have a coordination level with the heads of state in Latin America, with PROSUR with the pro tempore presidency of President Piñera.  We have had two presidential meetings so far where we tried to get information out of our experiences, where we look at how are we doing with testing, how are we doing flattening the curve, how are we doing with national quarantines, how are we doing with treatment and ICU capabilities, and I think that’s important.

But, honestly speaking, I think at a world level I think there’s much to be done, and I have big expectations about this because I think maybe this is the most complicated crisis the world has seen maybe since World War II.  When you look at what happened in World War I, even if it wasn’t a success, there was a Treaty of Versailles and then – Versailles, and then when you look at what happened after the Second World War, well, you had the Yalta Summit and then there was at least a minimum coordination to move to the right measures at the right time, and that maybe some of those decisions drove to have the Marshall Plan.

And even when you look at a regional level in the ’60s and during the Kennedy administration we saw the Alliance for Progress that was driven by the United States but we all tried to connect in a certain way, I think now there has to be a very strong level of coordination and, basically, trying to look to three objectives: one, that we can accelerate a vaccine.  The cost of not having neither a vaccine or a trustful treatment is going to be very high because social distancing – even if we start reopening, even if we start managing biosecurity policies, we have to be then prepared to have 50 (percent) or 60 percent of the whole world population with the possibility of being infected.  So we have to run for a vaccine.  That’s issue number one.

Issue number two is we need to find a way where we have cooperation to address the need for certain elements, and we’re talking about ventilators, we’re talking about ICUs, we’re talking about PPE equipment that today it’s running out because the world demand is so high. 

And let me just show a number to you.  Brazil has 34,000 ICUs.  Colombia has, what, 5,300.  The state of New York had 7,000 and now they’re looking for 30,000.  So if we don’t have a way to be able to have supply to middle-income and low-income countries, what we’re going to – about to see in the next months is going to be very deadly around the world.  So that’s why we have to be able to adapt and adopt the right policies.  And that is only going to be done if we have a strong level of worldwide leaders coordination.

MR. MARCZAK:  Mr. President, I have a question here from Felipe Ardila, who you know and is also a member of our U.S.-Colombia Task Force.  He’s asking, specifically on your point on ventilators, whether there’s an initiative to produce ventilators locally in Colombia, perhaps with the help of private sector companies.

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Yes.  Well, actually, I must thank Filipe because his family has been very active in sponsoring some of the – of the technology development.  And actually out of that sponsorship that we got from the – (inaudible) – Group with universities in Medellin and also the support of the mayor of Medellin.  We got good news on Saturday, and it was we had the pre-clinic test of those ventilators went successful.  And they were actually being used with animals, and now we’re trying to get it to the next phase, that is use the technology with humans.  And if it goes successful, we’ll be running to have the production of ventilators with that technology maybe by the end of June or the early July. 

The same thing is happening in Bogota.  We have a university that is – that is working on that platform.  And we are also contributing with INDUMIL.  That is a state-owned company that was our national weapon producer.  Now it’s going to be using all their capacity, ingenuity, and creativity to put in place that model.  So I mean, we see this, as I said maybe before we started, the word “resilience” has to be part of our mantra.  And it is, how do we make this adversity, this circumstance into the best opportunity?  And I think if we can develop locally ventilators that meet the needs of the Colombian people, I think we will be even stronger to face the coronavirus spread and be able to have an expansion of all the hospital capacities throughout the country.

MR. MARCZAK:  Mr. President, do you have time for one more – one last question?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Yes, of course.

MR. MARCZAK:  All right.  We’ll take one last – one last question via the Q&A.  And it’s an important question, which is:  What role can the United States play in helping the response and improving outcomes in Colombia and also in the region more broadly?

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Well, I also want to say something very important, Jason.  As you know, I lived in the United States for 14 years.  And I’ve been always an admirer of the United States as a nation.  And I lived in the United States through 9/11.  I also lived in the United States when we had the crisis of 2008-2009.  And I think the United States has the capacity of battling through these complicated moments and unite and, you know, go out stronger.  And I see this as an opportunity because, first of all, I believe the United States can help a lot Latin America acquiring technology that it’s important for us to face coronavirus.  And we’re talking about fast testing.  We’re talking about ventilators.  But we’re also talking about PPE equipment.  Obviously at this point the United States is also getting short, but I think in the next – in the next months, once the apex in the highest demand areas of the United States passes, I think United States can play a very important role helping Latin America.  That’s on pure technology.

The second thing is the CDC of the United States is maybe the world’s best or one of the world’s best epidemiological control units.  And I think we need to strengthen that capacity also in Latin America when it comes to face this type of diseases.  But I think the most important thing is the world economy’s going to change.  And that change is going to present very interesting questions for the United States, where there has to be a decoupling in the economic relations the United States has with Asia, and try also to look again, and maybe in a more ambitious way, to Latin America, since we’re closest to markets.  So regionally speaking, I think that decoupling process can also become the greatest economic opportunity for Latin America.  But it’s also going to be important and crucial for the United States’ economic and national security.

MR. MARCZAK:  Well, thank you very much, Mr. President.  I think you gave many ideas for our next conversation that we will hopefully have.  And I want to thank you again for joining us today.  I want to thank Ambassador Santos in Washington, the Colombian Embassy team here, their support.  And also, Mr. President, it was fantastic to kick off AC Frontpage with you, which is the Atlantic Council’s new live ideas platform that spotlights global leaders for innovating and championing constructive solutions to current global challenges.  And today’s conversation – also Adrienne Arsht, I’d like to thank you for launching the center’s new Leaders of the America Series, where we will provide a bridge for honest, solutions-focused discourse on today’s pressing issues.  And of course, we will continue to work to further deepen the U.S.-Colombia relationship.

I want to also thank the entire team for putting today’s show together.  And on behalf of President and CEO Fred Kempe and Executive Vice President Damon Wilson, it was great to have over 350 people join us today.  And I look forward to seeing everyone at the next AC Frontpage.  And, Mr. president, I hope you and your family stay safe and healthy.

PRESIDENT DUQUE:  Thank you so much, Jason.  My gratitude.  And it’s always an honor to participate in the Council events.  My best wishes to Fred, and to Adrienne, and to all the people that have joined us.  And also thank Ambassador Santos and the team in the embassy.  And you can always count on me.  And we’ll be delighted to keep on sharing our experiences.  And hopefully we will be able to endure throughout this process.  And as I say, this is an opportunity for the world not to become normal again, but to be better.  And so I think we all have to keep that in mind.  So thank you so much and it has been a great pleasure.

MR. MARCZAK:  Thank you very much.  Look forward to working with you in the future.


MR. MARCZAK:  Thank you.