Latin America Fights Losing Battle Against Covid-19

The presidents of Brazil, Nicaragua and Mexico have taken virtually no steps to try to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A water truck makes deliveries in a locked-down village in rural El Salvador in the days before the left- and right-wing parties joined forces to lift the nationwide lockdown. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — The battle against Covid-19 in Latin America has been a failure. With few exceptions, efforts to contain the pandemic have been derailed by egregious policy decisions and/or a public unwilling to abide by the requirements of social distance and facial coverings.

According to the Council of the Americas, which keeps statistics on the pandemic in Latin America, the countries with dreadful exponential growth include Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, along with regions of Colombia and Argentina. Countries that have flattened the curve include Paraguay, Uruguay, Guatemala, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Cuba. 

El Salvador, Peru and Paraguay announced severe measures in mid-March. Airports were closed, businesses shuttered, residents compelled to stay at home, and public transportation halted. Paraguay managed to curb the spread of Covid-19 with these measures and has reported fewer than 900 cases and just 11 deaths from Covid-19.

In Peru and El Salvador, people ignored the mandates and the virus curve is still rising, although Peru has 70 times as many Covid-19 cases as El Salvador and 100 times as many deaths. In Latin America, Peru is surpassed in infections only by Brazil and in deaths by Brazil and Ecuador.

Brazil is the epicenter of the virus in Latin America, with a health system on the verge of collapse according to Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s most important newspaper.

Three countries are led by presidents who have refused to acknowledge the public health emergency and refused to order either stay at home nor social distance measures: Mexico, Brazil and Nicaragua. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro advocates nothing to protect Brazilians and urges people to attend rallies, concerts, churches and soccer games, as if the coronavirus were harmless: “just a little flu,” he says.

Although the true numbers are estimated to be three times more than the official reports, the Brazilian Health Ministry reports more than 300,00 cases and more than 20,000 deaths.  And most observers predict the peak is weeks away, as Bolsonaro’s office has done nothing to stop it. Holes for common graves are being dug throughout the country, according to The Guardian and other news media.

Mexico also refused to adopt the recommendations of the World Health Organization and as a result is facing an explosion of cases in the densely populated region around Mexico City, with breakouts in textile and auto factories, in prisons and among health care workers.  

What’s arguably even worse than enabling a deadly epidemic, Mexico is deporting Covid-19-infected Guatemalans and Salvadorans to their countries, where health systems are operating with inadequate resources amid the pandemic. As is the United States.

A further blow to Mexico’s reputation is the situation on the U.S. border, where thousands of people have been expelled from the United States and denied the right to seek asylum, in violation of international law. Despite the impossible odds, thousands of refuge-seekers are sleeping in tent cities in border towns, often close to a bridge that crosses the Rio Grande. They wait month after month for a chance to tell a U.S. official why they afraid to be in their home countries. 

Mexico was threatened with paralyzing tariffs if it did not permit the United States to dump thousands of asylum seekers from third countries into some of the most dangerous cities in the world without so much as a blanket, a health check, a phone call or a few pesos to deal with the mean streets run by gangs of kidnappers and robbers, often aligned with police.

While it is understandable that areas with no protective measures would have higher rates of infection, Peru and El Salvador reacted immediately to the threat and initially reported few infections. Half of the people in both countries survive in the informal economy and suffer heartrending levels of poverty. 

El Salvador did a better job of providing emergency cash so that people would not have a reason to go into the streets to sell. But there was no cash as April turned to May, as the congress withheld appropriated money and joined with the supreme court to derail the quarantine and defend those who took to the streets for money or out of boredom.  

When El Salvador confined people who violated emergency measures to luxury hotel rooms, the right wing went to the supreme court to stop it.

Every attempt to abide by WHO recommendations has been met with opposition not only from the extreme right, but from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

While the hard right wants the textile factories, the call centers, the bars and restaurants open, Human Rights Watch is worried about tough conditions for imprisoned gang members. In the aftermath of an order by imprisoned gang leaders to commit a bloodbath in which 77 people were executed within four days this month, the prisons were put on emergency lockdown and a search for hidden documents of kill lists made it to the streets. 

The battle against Covid-19 in El Salvador is slowly being lost to an intransigent supreme court and a congress that wants President Nayib Bukele to fail, no matter the cost in lives.  

A leader of the FMLN party, Shafik Handal Jr., tweeted on Thursday that despite the overwhelming popularity of the first-year president, the FMLN will join forces with the far right ARENA party to remove “the dictator.” 

The FMLN and ARENA, bitter enemies during the bloody Salvadoran civil war, have joined forced to urge people to disregard the medical emergency, saying that only congress can declare a health emergency. Ironically, Shafik Handal Sr. was a leading leftist guerrilla comandante and the head of the Communist Party during the civil war, from 1980-1992.

Hospital workers have staged demonstrations outside of Salvadoran hospitals to urge the country to abide by the lockdown until the rate of infection starts to decline. The vast majority of the population understands what’s at stake, as over more than half the adults in the country follow the president’s twitter feed. 

Unfortunately, El Salvador’s woefully inadequate health system will reach its limit within weeks, and the gravediggers have begun to prepare. Among the recent deaths to Covid-19 were two members of El Salvador’s Ministry of Health.

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