If the world doesn’t stop the growing number of cases in the region, it could cost us everything we’ve done to fight the pandemic, a health official said.
Julie turkewitz and
BOGOTÁ, Colombia – In Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, the mayor is warning residents to prepare for “the worst two weeks of our lives”.
Uruguay, once hailed as a role model for keeping the coronavirus under control, now has one of the highest death rates in the world, while the grim daily death toll has reached record highs in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru in recent days.
Even Venezuela, where the authoritarian government is known to hide health statistics and any suggestion of dismay, says coronavirus deaths have increased 86% since January.
As vaccinations rise in some of the richest countries in the world and people cautiously view life after the pandemic, the crisis in Latin America – and South America in particular – takes an alarming turn for the worse, threatening potentially the progress made well beyond its borders. .
Last week, Latin America accounted for 35% of all coronavirus deaths worldwide, despite only 8% of the world’s population, according to data compiled by the New York Times.
Latin America was already one of the hardest-hit regions in the world in 2020, with bodies sometimes left on sidewalks and new cemeteries dug into thick forest. Yet even after a year of untold losses, it is still one of the world’s most troubling hot spots, with a recent outbreak in many countries that is even more deadly than before.
The crisis stems in part from predictable forces – limited vaccine supplies and slow deployment, weak health systems and fragile economies that make home orders difficult to impose or maintain.
But the region has another thorny challenge, health officials say: living side by side with Brazil, a country of more than 200 million people whose president has consistently rejected the threat of the virus and denounced measures for it. control, helping to fuel a dangerous variant. which is now stalking the continent.
The length of the epidemic in Latin America makes the fight even more difficult. The region has already suffered some of the toughest lockdowns, longest school closures and biggest economic contractions in the world.
Inequality, a long-standing scourge that had eased before the pandemic, is widening again and millions of people have been forced back into precarious positions they thought they had escaped during a relative boom. Many are expressing their anger in the streets, defying official calls to stay home.
“They took us so much that we even lost our fear,” read a sign held by Brissa Rodríguez, 14, during a demonstration with thousands of others in Bogotá on Wednesday.
Experts fear Latin America is set to become one of the longest Covid patients in the world – leaving public health, economic, social and political scars that could run deeper than anywhere else in the world.
“It’s a story that is only just beginning to be told,” Alejandro Gaviria, Colombia’s economist and former health minister who heads the country’s Universidad de los Andes, said in an interview.
“I tried to be optimistic,” he also wrote in a recent essay. “I want to think the worst is over. But this turns out, I believe, to be counter-obvious.
If Latin America fails to contain the virus – or if the world does not step in to help it – new, more dangerous variants could emerge, said Dr Jarbas Barbosa of the Pan American Health Organization.
“It could cost us everything the world does” to fight the pandemic, he said.
He urged leaders to work as quickly as possible to ensure equal access to vaccines for all countries.
“The worst-case scenario is the development of a new variant that is not protected by current vaccines,” he said. “It’s not just an ethical and moral imperative, but a health imperative, to control this all over the world.”
The spread of the virus in the region can be attributed at least in part to a variant called P.1 first identified in the Brazilian city of Manaus at the end of last year.
Manaus, the largest city in the Brazilian Amazon, was devastated by the virus in mid-2020. But the second wave was worse than the first.
Although the data are far from conclusive, initial studies indicate that P.1 is more transmissible than the original virus and is associated with a higher death rate in younger patients and patients without pre-existing conditions. It can also re-infect people who have previously had Covid, although it is not known how often this occurs.
P.1 is now present in at least 37 countries, but appears to have spread most completely across South America, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University.
Across the region, doctors say patients entering hospitals are now much younger and much sicker than before. They are also more likely to have already contracted the virus.
In Peru, the National Institute of Health documented 782 cases of probable reinfection in the first three months of 2021 alone, an increase from last year. Dr Lely Solari, an infectious disease specialist at the institute, called this a “very significant underestimation”.
The official daily death toll has broken previous records in recent days in most of South America’s largest countries. Yet scientists say the worst is yet to come.
Colombian health ministry director of epidemiology Julián Fernández said it was likely that the variants – including P.1 and another variant first found in Britain last year – are the dominant strains of the virus within two to three months.
The region is not prepared. Colombia has been able to deliver a first vaccine to just six percent of its population, according to Our World in Data, a project from the University of Oxford. Several of its neighbors have reached half, or even less.
In contrast, the United States, which bought vaccines before other countries, is at 43%.
Peru, the fifth most populous country in Latin America, has become a microcosm of the region’s growing struggles.
Like many of its neighbors, Peru has made significant economic progress over the past two decades, using commodity exports to raise incomes, reduce inequality and bring dreams to the middle class. But the boom has brought few stable jobs, led to little investment in healthcare, and failed to contain the region’s other scourge – corruption.
The virus arrived in Peru in March last year, like much of Latin America, and the government has moved quickly to lock down the country. But with millions of people working in the informal sector, the application of quarantines has become unsustainable. Cases grew rapidly and hospitals quickly fell into crisis. In October, the country became the first in the world to record more than 100 deaths per 100,000 population.
The actual death toll is much higher, as many deaths have not been included in the official tally of coronavirus patients.
Then, luckily, new cases started to fade. A government study in the capital, Lima, found that 40% of residents had antibodies to the coronavirus. Officials said the population had achieved such a high level of immunity that a second wave might not be so severe. The government has chosen not to impose a lockdown during the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
But in January, as the United States and other countries began robust, if at times chaotic, vaccine deployments, a second wave began in Peru – and that wave was even more brutal than the first.
Last month was by far the deadliest in the pandemic, official data shows, with health experts attributing the increase to holiday gatherings, crippled health systems and new variants.
The vaccines arrived in Peru in February, quickly followed by anger after some politically-linked people crossed the line to get vaccinated first. More recently, several government agencies have started investigating whether some health workers have asked for bribes in exchange for access to limited hospital beds.
“It was either that or let her die,” said Dessiré Nalvarte, 29, a lawyer who said she helped pay around $ 265 to a man who claimed to be the head of the intensive care unit of ‘a hospital to seek treatment for a family. friend who had fallen ill.
The crisis has plunged nations like Peru into grief, tearing the social fabric apart. This month, thousands of poor and newly poor Peruvians began occupying swathes of empty land in southern Lima, many claiming they were doing so because they had lost their livelihoods amid the pandemic. .
Rafael Córdova, 50, a father of three, sat in a plaza drawn in the sand that marked his claim to land overlooking the Pan-American Highway and the Pacific coast.
Before the pandemic, he explained, he was a supervisor in the human resources department of a local municipality and had a grip – or so he thought – over stability.
Then, in May, he fell ill with Covid and was fired. He believes his bosses let him go because they feared he would make others sick or his family would blame them if he died.
Now he’s struggling to pay for minutes on the only family phone so his kids can do class work. The meals are small. Debts are mounting. “Today I went to the market and bought a bag of fish bones and made some soup,” he said.
He says he has lost an aunt, sister-in-law and cousin to Covid, as well as friends. In June, his wife, who also had Covid, gave birth to twins prematurely. One girl died a few days after the birth, he said, and the second died about a month later. He didn’t have the money for a proper burial.
“I left the hospital with my daughter in a black plastic bag, got in a taxi and went to the cemetery,” he said. “There was no mass, no awakening. No flowers. Nothing.”
When he heard about the occupation, he said he was three months behind on rent and feared eviction. So he ran up the hill, pitching a tent which became his new home.
“The only way to get us out of here,” he said, “is if we’re dead.”
A week later, police arrived, set off tear gas – and kicked him and thousands of others out of their camp.
The report was written by Isayen Herrera in Caracas, Venezuela; Sofía Villamil in Bogotá, Colombia; and Daniel Politi in Buenos Aires, Argentina.