Colombian town uses discipline, speakers to stay virus-free

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Wearing a mask to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, a resident walks on a street in Campohermoso, Colombia, Thursday, March 18, 2021. According to the Health Ministry, Campohermoso is one of two municipalities in Colombia that has not had a single case of COVID-19 since the pandemic started one year ago. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

CAMPOHERMOSO – When customers enter his hardware store Nelson Avila asks them to wear a mask and wash their hands. He sprays alcohol over the bills and coins they give him before putting them in the till.

Avila's shop is in Campohermoso, a town of 3,000 people in Boyaca state in the mountains of central Colombia that has no reported cases of the coronavirus. According to the Health Ministry, Campohermoso county - which consists of the town and surrounding farms and villages - is one of just two counties in the country that are COVID-19-free. Colombia has more than 1,100 counties.

“Those bills can carry the virus” said Avila, 49, as he disinfects a wad of wrinkled Colombian pesos. “They go from hand to hand, so we have to be careful.”

Officials and locals say the town has been able to keep the virus away thanks to the disciplined behavior of its residents and constant campaigns urging people to social distance and wear masks.

The town’s remote location ringed by mountains, far from major roads, has also helped it to stay coronavirus-free. It has just seven streets and six avenues laid out in a neat grid. It is nestled at the bottom of a green valley, 3300 feet (about 1,000 meters) above sea level.

“Campohermosos has a low population density and little contact with big cities,” said Jairo Mauricio Santoyo, the health secretary for Boyaca state.

Given that Colombia, with a population of about 50 million people, has reported more than 2.3 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, many consider the lack of infections here a small miracle.

During the first decade of this century, Campohermoso was affected by fighting between paramilitary groups and leftist rebels, says the town’s mayor, Jaime Rodríguez. The coffee-growing area has been peaceful for more than a decade but it is seldom visited by outsiders.