OPINION: What can cities learn from Colombia’s lockdown?

by Samuel Heroy | @SamuelHeroy | University College London (UCL)
Wednesday, 7 April 2021 08:27 GMT

An employee of the Ministry of Health wearing protective gear talks to a woman wearing a face mask who will undergo a rapid test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bogota, Colombia December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As cities navigate how to revive the economy while curbing the spread of coronavirus, understanding how and why restrictions work is critical

Samuel Heroy is a researcher at University College London working on industrial agglomeration, human mobility, and condensed matter

We’re all devastatingly familiar with “social distancing” measures. From limiting gatherings to six, to monitoring urban movements with drones and police, societies around the world have taken unprecedented measures to limit mobility and stop COVID-19.

In Colombia, residents (except essential workers) were allowed out on days in correspondence to their gender and/or ID number (“pico y cedúla”).

For example, last April, Bogotános alternated days in which they were allowed out based on their identified gender, while in Medellín, residents were allowed out one day if their ID ended in 0-1, the next if it ended in 3-4, and so on.

One might reasonably guess from these mobility quotas that mobility dropped to roughly 50% of normal in Bogotá, compared to a more drastic 20% in Medellín. If so, policymakers would have an indispensable mobility tuner to adjust as cases rise and fall.

Of course, real urban behavior is more complicated. In a study published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, we found that cities with tighter mobility quotas did not have significantly more pronounced mobility reductions. Instead, economic advantages dictated which residents stayed home.

Lessons from Colombia’s pandemic response resonate globally, especially in Latin America where nearly every country has seen cases grow in 2021 and most residents remain under restrictions.

And with Europe now confronting a third wave, it’s safe to say lockdowns aren’t yet over. As countries wrestle with the ultimate balancing act — of reopening the economy with stopping the virus — understanding how and why mobility restrictions work remains critical.

LOCAL RESTRICTIONS

Local differences in Colombian lockdown policies offer a unique context for understanding mobility restrictions. In April 2020,    municipalities began implementing restrictions, but  each municipality differed in how many residents were allowed out daily.

Using a cross-city sample derived from mobile phone data, we found that urban residents countrywide decreased their mobility by about 70% on average, but reductions varied between cities. Most surprisingly, the stringency of cities’ mobility quotas was not significantly linked with their degree of mobility reduction---allowing less people out daily somehow didn’t result in lower mobility.

Instead, larger cities, with more wealth, labor formalization, and industrial sophistication, decreased mobility more. Larger, wealthier cities had an inherent advantage, as more residents could work remotely or were ‘nonessential.’

For example, the largest and wealthiest city (Bogotá) had the laxest mobility quota and yet the most pronounced mobility reduction. Generally, a 10-fold increase in city size (Bogotá versus Bucaramanga, a growing regional hub) meant an additional 17.7% mobility reduction and 17.8% more commute disruptions.

In other words, in bigger cities, more workers can stay home.

HOW DOES LABOR STRUCTURE DRIVE MOBILITY REDUCTION?

Worldwide, living in a wealthier area meant you were more likely to stay home, but – for Colombians - even more important was working in a wealthier area.

In Bogotá, commuters working in low-income areas were about equally likely to stay home or continue commuting, while commuters working in high-income areas were much likelier (85%) to stay home.

Importantly, commuters traveling from low-income residences to high-income work destinations were about twice as likely (80% vs. 40%) to stay home as those going from low-income residences to low-income destinations.

What might separate these two kinds of low-income residents? One moves between low-income areas and likely works alongside other low-income residents.

The other moves between low/high income areas and may work in service of a wealthier clientele – which has largely paused reliance on face-to-face services from blue-collar workers. Labor statistics from Colombia and Europe have indeed shown severe employment shocks in low-skill service sectors like domestic work, hospitality, and retail.

Dependencies between classes create a “trickle down” mobility reduction. By working from home, wealthier residents also cause those working nearby them to stay home. Therefore, wealthier cities have not just lower mobility overall, but even their lower income populations are likelier to stay home.

LESSONS FOR LOCKDOWN POLICY

Reducing mobility isn’t so simple as tuning a knob. Instead, policymakers must account for the labor force’s ability to halt in-person operations.

Although Colombia is currently seeing declining cases/deaths and aims to vaccinate 35 million residents in 2021, a difficult recovery lies ahead. Despite having implemented ambitious relief measurescash transfers for low income/informal workers; payroll subsidy schemes for businesses; and delayed tax/utility collections—Colombia had its worst recession in record and stifling unemployment.

Thus, there is immense need to reopen economic activity. But in a country with a top-15 death rate and particularly severe damage in low income communities, caution is crucial.

As cities continue “pico y cedúla” and other restrictions, policymakers must double down on relief - and not forget the residents that simply cannot forego income or work from home.