Wuhan was the original epicenter. Then the coronavirus migrated to Europe. New York was the next hotspot, and now world health authorities are worried about South America.
The region as a whole is now reporting more daily cases than the United States. And politics, rather than policy, seem to have informed the very different approaches that various South American countries have taken – with ideology appearing to have trumped best medical practices in some cases.
In Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador says he will resume travel around the country to kick off important public works projects, including a new railway in the southeast. In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro defied his country’s own medical authorities by participating in multiple rallies supporting his government; the right-wing former military officer is even shaking hands with supporters and holding children in his arms. And in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has turned the coronavirus pandemic into a political issue, saying his opponents are the ones who want people to stay home to create a financial crisis, undermining the country and his government.
In stark contrast, other heads of state in Latin America have implemented dramatic measures to slow the spread of Covid-19. Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra extended the national emergency until the end of June and created a national task force to expedite relief efforts, which includes mandatory social isolation measures. In El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele is sending curfew violators to government-run “quarantine centers” – a measure ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Yet despite the different approaches by regional and national authorities, Latin America as a region now faces a harsh, common reality: the pandemic seems to be unstoppable, regardless of efforts made.
Last week the World Health Organization said South America had become the new Covid-19 epicenter.
Tale of two countries
This week, Brazil moved ahead of Russia to become the country with the second-highest number of infections in the world, after the United States.
“We’ve seen many South American countries with increasing numbers of cases and clearly there’s a concern across many of those countries, but certainly the most affected is Brazil at this point,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program said at a press conference in Geneva on May 22.
But despite the virus’s massive spread in Brazil, differences between Bolsonaro and state governors on how to handle the crisis have grown greater. He has frequently criticized governors for attempting to enforce lock down and social-distancing measures, insisting that the economy comes first.
The Brazilian opposition says enough is enough. Alessandro Molon, a Brazilian lawmaker and member of the Brazilian Socialist Party, told CNN it’s time to impeach President Bolsonaro. “This is a time when our country should be united, fighting together against this disease. We’ve unfortunately discovered that the virus main ally and best friend is the president,” Molon said.
Neighboring Peru, which reacted swiftly and strictly to contain the virus, has also seen a dramatic rise in cases despite its efforts. Though it mandated stay-at-home orders, curfews and border closings, health experts say income inequality forced the poor to venture outside their homes for work, food and even banking transactions, anyway.
They crowded supermarkets and banks, increasing the risk of transmission. The number of infections now threatens to overwhelm Peru’s decentralized health system.
Nowhere in Peru is this more evident than in La Victoria, a district in capital city Lima with the highest incidence of Covid-19 cases in the entire nation. On Tuesday, a viral social media video showed Mayor Georgia Forsyth desperately asking people in a crowded street to go home.
One of the greatest problems in Peru is the informal economy, Forsyth says. The Gamarra market in La Victoria, for example, is the largest textile center in Latin America and most workers there are day laborers. About 70% percent of people in Peru are thought to work in the informal sector. “This is not the moment to go to our beautiful, but battered district because it is the most infected one in all of Peru. This poses great risks and that’s why I was asking people not to come,” Mayor Forsyth said.
Inequality is a factor – but not the only one
Economic inequality is likely to extend the reach of the coronavirus, and that’s a particular concern for many countries in Latin America. According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Latin America holds eight of the world’s 20 most economically unequal countries.
Poor Latin Americans are much less likely to have access to resources like sanitation, access to running water, and vaccination, writes Linnea Sandin, Associate Director and Associate Fellow, of the CSIS Americas Program and the report’s author. “They are also more likely to live in overcrowded neighborhoods or lack running water, meaning that self-isolation and frequent hand washing, and disinfecting are extremely difficult.”
However, even the poorest can be protected by decisive government measures and a robust, unified public health system. Costa Rica, for example, appears on the Gini index as the 16th most unequal country in the world. However, at 0.20 deaths per 100,000 people, the Central American nation of five million has one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in Latin America.
María Dolores Pérez, the Pan-American Health Organization representative in Costa Rica, told CNN that the country’s government health system, which covers nearly 95 percent of the population, allowed the health authorities to launch a coordinated effort against the spread of the virus.
“The strength of Costa Rica’s health system and its universal coverage that the country enjoys, as well as the strength of its epidemiology vigilance system have been crucial factors. Another key factor has been the commitment of Costa Ricans to fight the virus because they trust their healthcare system and believe in it. That’s why they have adhered to the government’s guidelines,” Pérez said.
Following the guidelines has recently allowed Costa Rica to ease its economy back into gear. The Costa Rican Health Ministry recently approved a gradual reopening hotels, movie theaters and beaches. Some establishments may remain open as late as 10pm on weeknights.
And even informal workers have been able to return to work – though not without precautions. Walter Steller, who sells lottery tickets in downtown San José, Costa Rica’s capital, is back on the job for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Like most people around the downtown area, he’s wearing a mask.
“If people don’t heed the warnings, the problem will become serious again,” Steller told CNN. “Some people think this is over, but they have to realize this doesn’t end.”