Latin America, Relatively Untouched by Coronavirus, Has the Jitters

(CN) — Only two deaths from the COVID-19 coronavirus have been confirmed among Latin America’s 626 million people so far, but some nations are beginning to close their borders to deter its spread — to build a wall around it.

Honduras reported its first two cases this week and said it will not accept deportation flights from Mexico — but did not say whether it will keep accepting deportations from the United States.

Two recent deportees are in quarantine after arriving at the airport in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Young girls in Suchitoto, El Salvador. (Miguel Patricio photo/Courthouse News)

It was unclear late Thursday whether the two men had been deported from Mexico or the United States.

The presence of COVID-19 in the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — has prompted panic buying in all three countries, according to news reports and other sources in large and small cities.

In El Salvador, warehouse stores were swamped this week by customers filling carts with toilet paper, water and canned food. Lines of cars waiting for parking spots stretched for blocks amid chaotic scenes of panicked buyers, according to Vicente M., a storekeeper in rural Cuscatlán Province.

Reports of hand sanitizer going for $8 an ounce prompted the Salvadoran government to promise prosecution for price-gouging.

President Nayib Bukele announced a ban on travelers from Europe in a nationally televised address Wednesday night, and an obligatory quarantine on military bases for Salvadorans returning from the United States, Asia and Europe, for 30 days.

Bukele sealed borders even from neighboring countries for people without passports that could verify what countries they had visited, according to Proceso, a Honduran news site. All Salvadoran schools and museums have been closed for at least 21 days.

This despite no cases reported yet from the most densely populated country on the American mainland.

Elsewhere in Latin America, precautions have intensified, though only 315 confirmed cases and two deaths have been reported in all of Latin America.

Banning tourists is a difficult choice for countries whose economies are heavily dependent on jobs in the tourist industry. Empty hotels and restaurants are forcing layoffs — and unemployment insurance is a rare beast in Latin America.

Costa Rica has reported more suspected cases than any other Latin American country — 165, with no deaths — but its labs are unable to keep up with the demands for testing. Even so, the relatively high numbers may be attributed to Costa Rica’s relatively developed economy.

The Tico Times, an English-language daily, reported that all suspected cases will be treated free of charge, regardless of immigration status.

Reuters reported that a visitor to Guyana who recently visited the United States has died — that country’s only confirmed infection.

Cuba has reported three cases — all Italian tourists, who have been quarantined, according to the BBC.

Reuters reported two cases in Bolivia, where one afflicted person is being held in a government office after health workers and residents blocked her from entering four hospitals in Santa Cruz.

With the United States deporting asylum-seekers from countries worldwide to Latin America to “Wait in Mexico” and points south, some critics of the Colossus of the North are saying that the USA is responsible spreading for spreading the disease to poorer American countries, just as it spread the disease of violent gangs that formed in Los Angeles — thousands of whose members were deported to El Salvador, which has become overrun with gang violence.

However, deportation flights from the United States to El Salvador will continue normally, acting director of Customs and Border Patrol Mark Morgan said Thursday, despite the national quarantine declared by President Bukele. “Deportation activities and flights will continue. However, we’re in negotiations with these countries about the coronavirus,” Morgan said, according to Salvadoran news site El Faro. He did not elucidate about the “negotiations.”

Costa Rica, which has reported seven times more infections than the second most-reported Latin American country, Chile, is a haven to U.S. expatriates and tourists, adding to fears that the United States is exporting its medical problems.

Health authorities in El Salvador are demanding a halt to deportations from immigration prisons in the United States. The density of urban areas in San Salvador would make containment problematic if COVID-19 appears.

Latin America is woefully unprepared to deal with a breakout of COVID-19, where many countries’ health systems have little to no resources to handle pandemic emergencies.

Here is a breakdown of coronavirus cases reported in Latin America as of Thursday, abstracted from reports from Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:

  • Costa Rica – 165
  • Brazil – 52
  • Chile – 23
  • Argentina – 19
  • Ecuador – 17
  • Peru – 15
  • Mexico – 12
  • Colombia – 9
  • Paraguay – 5
  • Cuba – 3
  • Bolivia – 2
  • Honduras – 2
  • Guyana – 1

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Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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