How Latin America became the new COVID-19 epicentre

By Annie Smith

As Europe and Asia begin to resume normal life after months of lockdown, Latin America is facing a critical moment in its fight against COVID-19. Within the month of June, the continent has become the epicentre of the coronavirus, and today, case counts continue to increase exponentially in most countries.

The current state of Latin America

Cases are still on the rise in several regions of South America: in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, graphs for deaths and cases have shown an exponential growth, with no sign of slowing down. In Suriname, cases began to spike at the beginning of June after little to no cases and deaths being reported before. Human Rights Watch have claimed the numbers from Venezuela are “not credible”, having reported less than 5,000 cases and only 41 deaths. And the reports from Nicaragua are also under suspicion for false reporting after claims of express burials and packed hospital wards, even though official reports show that Nicaragua only has about 2,000 cases and 74 deaths.

Brazil and Mexico have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, seeing the highest number of deaths, more than 56,000 and 25,000 respectively. Mexico became the seventh country to surpass 20,000 deaths last week, while Brazil became the second country in the world to confirm more than 1 million cases, behind the United States.

As noted by Jake Horton for the BBC, “Looking at Brazil, Mexico and Peru compared with three of the worst-hit countries in Europe in terms of deaths – the UK, Italy and France – you can see daily deaths remain high in these Latin American nations as they drop elsewhere.” Peru has the seventh-most cases in the world at over 270,000, and the number of deaths in these three countries is doubling about every three weeks. Latin America as a whole is now reporting more daily cases than Europe and the United States, which suffered greatly from the coronavirus in March and April.

Despite these numbers, the World Health Organization has stated that Brazil particularly is entering a “new and dangerous” phase of the pandemic as the country begins to reopen while cases rise, and experts have stated that the country is still weeks away from the peak

Desperate to reopen its economy, parts of the country are opening up, including some of the hardest-hit regions in Brazil. As NPR’s Brazil-based correspondent Philip Reeves states, “Sao Paolo, for example, has started a phased reopening. It’s happening in stages. But shopping centers there are back in business, although with some social distancing rules. In Rio de Janeiro, another big city, public hospitals are almost out of intensive care beds, yet people are back on Copacabana Beach in crowds.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for Latin America, as Uruguay and Paraguay have nearly defeated the coronavirus in their countries, seeing only 26 and 13 deaths respectively. This comes as a shock to many due to their close proximity to nations struggling against the pandemic, such as Brazil and Argentina, and their low poverty indexes (Uruguay has the lowest poverty index in Latin America). 

Their successes have stemmed partially from testing, as Uruguay has conducted 1,610 tests per new case, compared to 52 in the United States and 21 in the UK. Additionally, Uruguay has a long history of extensive public health coverage and nearly 100% access to running water, unlike other Latin American countries. Meanwhile, Paraguay’s success was found in closing borders early and strictly enforcing government measures. This is essential when considering Paraguay’s neighbors, as more than half of its COVID-19 cases were related to citizens returning from Brazil.

So, how did Latin America become the epicentre of the coronavirus, and why is it struggling more than other regions of the world?

Lack of testing

For one, data shows that a lack of testing not only contributes to a significant under-reporting of cases and deaths in a majority of Latin American countries, but also in comparison to countries that have found more success, testing seems to be key to identifying and curing cases quickly. For example, nearly COVID-free Uruguay is fourth in the world for testing per capita, while epicentre Brazil currently stands at 109th in the world for testing per capita, at 13,452 tests per 1 million people. Mexico, which together with Brazil have the highest number of deaths in South America, only completes about 3 tests per 1,000 people, compared with 86 in the US.

Nations such as Nicaragua and Brazil have also been accused of cover-ups to hide the true extent of COVID-19’s toll in their countries. Nicaragua has said it is maintaining “tight control” over its information and has not given any public statements about the number of tests they have conducted or their results. Meanwhile, Brazil’s health ministry removed its coronavirus data from its government website at the beginning of June, only reversing the decision after a Supreme Court order and accusations that it was an attempt to manipulate the data.

Poverty and income inequality

Certain regions and countries have also suffered due to extreme levels of poverty, lack of access to clean water, and the risk posed to indigenous communities. More than 190 million Latin Americans, or 30 percent of the overall population, live in poverty, and South America as a whole has the highest inequality in the world. Many lack access to water and sanitation, posing a clear risk to washing hands and preventing the spread of germs which the prevention of COVID-19 spreading demands. As Marcos Espinal, executive at the Pan American Health Organization, said on the conditions of many poorer communities, “How can you demand from a person living in crowded conditions in the belts of Bogotá, Lima, São Paulo, Santo Domingo, Mexico City to practice social distancing if they need to feed two or three kids, and they need to go out?”

In countries like Peru, lockdowns don’t necessarily mean that the majority of people are not called into work as it does in most Western countries, as 73 percent of Peruvians work in the informal economy, with jobs such as selling goods in the streets or cleaning homes. 

Experts have also warned that many indigenous communities in South America, particularly the remote Amazon territories of Brazil, are at risk of being “wiped out”. According to Reuters, the state of Amazonas registered about 19.4 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to 4.4 per 100,000 residents for all of Brazil.

These indigenous peoples typically have a higher susceptibility to contagious diseases such as COVID-19, and areas such as the Amazon tend to have less access to hospitals, a higher rate of poverty, and less access to clean water. For many, it can take two to three hours to reach a town with a good hospital that offers critical care, a unique challenge not seen in many regions that have dealt with the coronavirus. 

Lack of strong leadership

Meanwhile, Brazil has especially suffered for similar reasons as the United States: leaders of the two countries, President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump, have belittled the coronavirus, not worn face masks in public, not imposed national lockdowns, and maintained a focus on reopening the economy instead of defeating COVID-19. As a result, they are the only two nations that have surpassed 1 million cases.

At the beginning of its transmission, far-right President Bolsonaro called the coronavirus a “little flu” and did not follow social distancing in public. At demonstrations and rallies, he shook hands with supporters, held babies for photos, coughed without covering his mouth, and sneezed into his hand before shaking the hand of an elderly woman. 

He also attended a protest against coronavirus lockdown measures and fought against state governors who tried to impose tougher quarantine measures, arguing that it would damage the economy. Experts have said that the President’s refusal to listen to scientists, such as not abiding to social distancing, has been partially responsible for the pandemic’s severity in Brazil.

And this week, a federal judge ruled that President Bolsonaro must wear a face covering in public spaces or face a fine of up to 2,000 reais (£308), yet his government is looking for ways to reverse that decision. 

Struggling health systems

As a whole across South America, many countries struggle with underfunded, under-resourced health systems, which has contributed to the dire situation across the continent. Peru has less than 1,000 intensive care unit beds for its 32 million citizens, and the country as a whole has struggled with a lack of ICU beds and ventilators. In Venezuela, 64.2 percent of hospital workers reported “intermittent access” to clean water between 27 February and 1 March. And in cities such as São Paulo, Brazil, football stadiums have been converted into emergency hospitals to treat coronavirus patients.

COVID-19 has spread faster in deprived neighborhoods and remote areas where access to quality health care is difficult, and experts have warned that the problem of poor health systems cannot be fixed amidst South America’s battle against COVID-19, meaning leaders must be creative in how they fight the virus, such as promoting social distancing and launching more educational measures. 

As South America takes centre stage in its handling of coronavirus as the new epicentre, the world should be watching to see how exactly a global pandemic affects disadvantaged and indigenous communities. South American citizens should pay close attention to how their leaders, such as those of Brazil and Mexico, are handling COVID-19 and consider how this will influence their voting in future elections.

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