Latin America Overwhelmed by Coronavirus

A health worker give instructions to members of Da Costa family after some of them tested positive for Covid-19 at their home in Manacapuru, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — The reality of life in Latin America in May was more unpleasant than anyone could have imagined. Just six months ago things were exponentially better. Today, battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the poor have been beaten by loss of income and the need to violate quarantine merely to survive.

Mexico reported more than 1,000 virus deaths on Wednesday — the first time the daily death toll reached four figures. Brazil on Wednesday also reported a record daily death toll of 1,349. Both numbers are believed to be vastly undercounted.

In El Salvador, one hears elderly people compare the national plight to the nightmare of the 1930’s, when there was war, famine and economic collapse that lasted for years after the nation fell into totalitarianism from the right.

There is no way yet to get a handle on the scope of the death and infection caused by the novel coronavirus. Official figures are issued by official sources and most observers estimate that infections and deaths are vastly underreported; in Brazil the cases are estimated to be 10 to 30 times greater than the official numbers. So statistics mean next to nothing at the present — only that things are bad. 

Brazil’s official death count stood at 32,548 Wednesday night, Mexico’s at 11,729. In both countries the virus is raging; both countries’ presidents continue to try to minimize the seriousness of the situation.

Brazil’s health system has collapsed or is about to collapse, depending on the region. There are no intensive-care beds in many hospitals, especially the public ones where the poor and the marginalized are attended by woefully inadequate systems and services. 

In many cases the infected are encouraged to stay indoors and isolate. In other cases, especially in Ecuador, people have died by the thousand in their homes, and occasionally on the streets.

To make matters worse, the municipal workers hired to collect the dead were overwhelmed, and after the corpses started to rot they were dragged to the streets and in some cases torched.

Latin America failed to contain Covid-19. It was too resilient to be overcome by a few weeks of quarantine. After 70 days of lockdowns the pressure to reopen was too powerful. Chile has suffered a second wave of infection after relaxing the quarantine too early and was forced to order an even more severe lockdown.

When Peru shut down the economy there were no buses or trains to take peasants back to their villages in the Andes, so people walked for days to get back to their families. In Colombia, thousands of Venezuelans who lost their aspirations returned to Venezuela, where Covid-19 is somewhat under control.

Paraguay, Uruguay and Costa Rica have better health outcomes and have begun the resumption of normality. With small populations, low population density and universal healthcare, they showed that the Covid pandemic can be controlled.

But two of the largest Latin American nations, Mexico and Brazil, are unable to cope with basic respiratory therapy for the dying. There are shortages of bottled oxygen, black-market prices gouge people for masks, medicines and palliative care — and for caskets and funerals. 

Budget burials involve large holes in the ground with plastic bags instead of coffins.

In El Salvador the battle against Covid-19 is compromised by politicians and some sectors of the ruling class who insist that quarantines are unconstitutional and that to decree them is an abuse of power by President Nayib Bukele. The slogan one hears from the right is that Bukele is a dictator and should be removed from office.

Bukele is in his first year in office, and El Salvador has emerged from 30 years of bad government that followed a bloody, decade-long civil war. The civil war of the 1980’s was waged to install leadership that favors the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged.

A millenial and hip, Bukele has wide support from most sectors of society, especially those under 30, who are transforming the country by newfound belief that honest government may be possible. 

Bukele often goads the rightists with the date of next year’s elections in which his party, Nuevas Ideas, is expected to capture a majority of the legislature, which could bring a new constitution and an emphasis on the working class and small farmers.  

El Salvador, like all of Latin America, has rarely been successful when it struggled to deviate from the path laid down by the United States. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are prime examples that show that any country that charts a path that that strays from the interests of the United States may find itself crippled by sanctions and denial of credit.

Latin America was not prepared for coronavirus, nor was anyone. More than 375,000 people have died of it worldwide, and thousands more are going to die for lack of hospital care. This will be especially true where governments minimized the dangers of the lethal virus and refused to abide by recommendations of health authorities.

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