ISSN 2330-717X

Latin America’s Painful, Damaging Virus Outbreak – OpEd


By Ranvir S. Nayar*

The last few weeks have seen the focus of global media coverage of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic shift distinctly westwards from Europe. Having focused on the Old Continent for nearly three months while the pandemic was running wild there, attention is now largely on the way the virus has taken hold of the Americas, notably Central and South America, besides the US.

The first confirmed case of the virus in Latin America appeared in Brazil on Feb. 26, even though some experts believe it reached the region as early as January. In the four months since, COVID-19 has reached every Latin American country and more than 2 million cases have been recorded, with over 100,000 deaths.

There are concerns that the data is unreliable, as countries in the region are conducting very few tests in proportion to their populations and some nations may be under-reporting the positive cases and deaths. For instance, Mexico, which has reported more than 25,000 deaths — the second highest in the region — conducts only about three tests per 1,000 people, while the US, while also not the best example, is carrying out approximately 86 tests per 1,000 people. Chile, the most prosperous country in the region, is also lagging behind at about 53 tests per 1,000 people.

The biggest challenge for the region has been very weak and indecisive political leadership. Some of the biggest countries in Latin America, including Brazil and Mexico, failed to impose strict lockdowns to curb the virus’s spread. As a result, both nations are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Much like US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the threat of the virus and has even been ordered by the courts to wear a mask in public or face a fine. With the president himself taking the virus so lightly, it is no wonder that Brazil has been ravaged by it, with more than 59,000 deaths so far, while the rates of new infections and deaths are still increasing every day. Some experts forecast that the country could see more than 125,000 deaths by August.

Bolsonaro is clearly struggling to deal with the virus. He has already seen two health ministers quit in quick succession due to sharp disagreements over his policies. For instance, the president said in May that gyms and beauty parlors could reopen, even while the death count continued to scale new heights every day. Bolsonaro also stopped publishing daily data about the virus last month, but was forced to do so again by the courts. The two former health ministers strongly disagreed with Bolsonaro over the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a medicine to treat people with mild symptoms of COVID-19. Incidentally, Trump is also a big fan of this drug, whose efficacy has not yet been proven.

But not all the continent’s leaders have behaved as irresponsibly as Bolsonaro. Some did take a very prudent and cautious approach by imposing strict lockdowns early on. However, even these countries, like Peru and Argentina, have seen an explosion in the number of victims in a pattern very similar to Europe, where, despite the different responses in France, Italy, Germany and the UK, the virus has killed tens of thousands of people. 

However, as in Europe, consistency in policies and strict measures on the ground are paying off in some Latin American nations, notably Argentina and Uruguay, where experts believe the virus is under control and the worst may already be over.

For the rest of the region, the situation remains alarming. As in practically every country in the world, the pandemic has overwhelmed health care systems, with Ecuador being among the earliest to see a collapse in the face of a sharp rise in the numbers of patients. The situation is perhaps even worse in two of the largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, where most provinces face a severe shortage of hospital beds and qualified medical professionals.

Indeed, the high mortality rates in several parts of the region are due to poor health care, and fatalities caused by the virus are set to jump. A survey in Bolivia found that one of the cities, Trinidad, had more than 16 percent of all cases in the country, even though it is only a sixth of the size of La Paz. This could be due to the fact that only about 29 percent of the residents of Trinidad have access to sanitation and four in 10 lack access to drinking water.

Large sections of the populations of both Brazil and Mexico also lack access to sanitation, tap water and basic health care. It is the people in these areas who are most vulnerable as the pandemic spreads. Another factor that is bound to hit the poor across the region is the dramatic collapse of the economy, with most experts predicting a decline of more than 9 percent in Latin America’s gross domestic product — the sharpest ever contraction for most nations in the region. The economic costs of the pandemic seem to be much higher here than in most other parts of the world.

Wracked with sharp domestic political differences and divided societies, much of Latin America will struggle to overcome the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the region could take much longer to recover than the rest of the world.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.

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