COVID-19 fears leads to closure of Colombian border's largest migrant kitchen

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Workers at the Casa de Paso La Divina Providencia kitchen wipe down tables before closing temporarily due to COVID-19 concerns. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

CÚCUTA, Colombia — The largest kitchen on the Colombian border feeding Venezuelan refugees and migrants will shut down temporarily due to coronavirus precautions put in place by the Colombian government.

As global cases climb, Latin America readies for coronavirus response

Public health organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean are working with national health departments and other stakeholders to prepare the region.

Gatherings of more than 500 people are no longer allowed as concern over the spread of COVID-19 heightens in Colombia, which had 9 confirmed cases as of Thursday. The kitchen, Casa de Paso La Divina Providencia, serves an average of 8,000 meals per day.  

“From now on, the doors of the Casa de Paso will be closed until Monday,” said Jean Carlos Andrade, the kitchen’s coordinator, on Thursday after the facility served lunch. “We’re going to start trainings and wait for direction from the government so we can follow them.”

“It’s very hard for us to know that there are people who are leaving without food because we can’t help everyone.”

— Jean Carlos Andrade, coordinator, Casa de Paso La Divina Providencia kitchen

The training will cover what precautions the facility, which feeds around 4,500 people a day and also provides basic medical services and access to bathrooms, must take to operate safely. 

Andrade said they have ordered antibacterial gel in mass quantities, but await further instruction from the government for other measures that would help stop the virus’ spread should it arrive on the border.

Rafael Zavala Toledo, who runs the UN Refugee Agency’s office in Cúcuta, said his agency, along with the department of health, will assist in a training on Friday to teach volunteers at Casa de Paso prevention methods against COVID-19 in the hopes the facility can reopen next week with these measures in place.

Andrade said his intention is to resume serving refugees and migrants, who frequently eat their only meal of the day at the facility, but modify the flow so the number of people in the kitchen at one time does not exceed the maximum set by the government.

A few blocks from the facility is a large field, which Andrade said could be used to prioritize the highest-need refugees and migrants and organize them before walking people to the facility to receive their meals.

“We are not going to close,” Andrade said. “We’re doing everything we can to meet the government’s requirements.”

Three other affiliated kitchens in the area serve from 150 to 300 people each, which Andrade said is not enough to meet needs. More than 2,000 children per day are fed at the main facility, which is run by the local diocese and supported by the World Food Programme, UNHCR, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and others.

“It’s very hard for us to know that there are people who are leaving without food because we can’t help everyone,” Andrade said.

A short walk from Casa de Paso, on the Simón Bolívar bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela, loudspeakers warn travelers that they are the first line of defense against COVID-19, and that if they have traveled recently to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain, Ecuador, or the United States, they must inform authorities immediately. 

An estimated 30,000 people cross the bridge into Colombia daily, with about 5,000 returning to Venezuela the same day.

A Colombian migration agent disinfects hands of people crossing from Venezuela before they enter Colombia. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

A border agent told Devex that as of yesterday, anyone coming into Colombia must wear a face mask. The majority of refugees and migrants crossing were wearing medical masks of different varieties, although some covered their faces with scarves or t-shirts. Agents checking travelers identifications entering Colombia were also spraying alcohol onto people’s hands.

Zavala said that as of now, the Colombian government is not considering closing the border.

“Taking into account what happened in February last year, closing a border is not easy — particularly one with so much movement like this one,” Zavala said, referencing the period last year when bridges into Venezuela were blocked by the Venezuelan government, preventing legal crossings.

“What could happen tomorrow? I don’t know.”

Editor’s note: The reporter’s travel was facilitated by Acceso. Devex retains full editorial control of content in this article.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.