Colombia to suspend international flights as region shuts amid COVID-19 fears

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Colombia became the latest country in Latin America to embrace extreme isolation as it tries to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday, March 23, the country will suspend all incoming international flights for 30 days. The South American nation had already closed its land, sea and river borders.

In a national address Thursday, President Iván Duque said his priority was the safety of the country.

“This is a painful decision but a necessary one,” he said.

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Colombia had previously barred all foreigners — except for residents and diplomats — from arriving. But the new measure effectively even bars Colombians who may be abroad from returning.

Colombia, a country of 50 million and the United States’ staunchest ally in the region, has reported 108 cases of the novel coronavirus. And it has slowly been ramping up preventive measures. On Wednesday, Duque declared a state of emergency and will begin requiring all citizens who are 70 and older to isolate themselves from March 20 through May 31.

Region Closes

The decision to lock down its borders comes as other nations have taken similar steps. On March 16, Peru closed its international borders. And several other countries, including Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia, have barred the entry of non-resident foreigners.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department told U.S. travelers to return home immediately unless they’re prepared to “remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

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The sudden border closures and flight cancellations have reportedly left thousands of U.S. citizens stranded, said Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On Thursday, he asked the Trump administration to invoke the Civil Reserve Airfleet program and begin chartering commercial flights to evacuate those stuck abroad.

“If there ever was a need to increase our nation’s aircraft capability during a national crisis, this is it,” he said in a statement. “No American citizen should be abandoned overseas as we confront this unprecedented pandemic simply because of a failure of government to provide them the support that they need.”

Natalia Arenas,of Bogotá, Colombia, traveled to England on March 12 with her boyfriend and parents to attend her sister’s wedding.

As fears about the spreading virus roiled Europe the family decided to cut their trip short.

Arenas’ parents paid more than $2,000 each to go home early but she and her boyfriend have been staying with her sister trying to find a way back.

While they think they have tickets that will get them home just before Monday’s deadline, things are changing fast.

“I went into a panic,” Arenas said of Thursday’s border closure announcement. “This has been terrible. We’re in a little town in southern England, in the middle of nowhere, and we’ve seen food shortages at the markets. ... Everyone here is making an effort to take care of us, but we’re two more mouths to feed.”

In his national address, Duque said he made the decision to shut down international flights after speaking to his South American counterparts and said it was designed to give Colombians like Arenas abroad enough time to get home. But even so, he said the stakes were too high to delay the measure any more.

“We’re facing a pandemic,” Duque said, “and all of us have to do our part.”

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