South America buckling as pandemic deaths rise

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It's not only India that is racking up terrible COVID-19 statistics. The crisis in South America is deteriorating daily, with a region that has just 8% of the global population now accounting for around 35% of all pandemic deaths, reports The New York Times.

Uruguay, once lauded as a model for keeping the coronavirus under control, now has one of the highest death rates in the world, while the grim daily tallies of the dead have hit records in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, write Julie Turkewitz and Mitra Taj. Even Venezuela, where the authoritarian government is notorious for hiding health statistics, says that coronavirus deaths are up 86% since January.

Latin America was already one of the world’s hardest hit regions in 2020. Yet even after a year of incalculable loss, it is still one of the most troubling global hot spots, with a recent surge in many countries that is even more deadly than before. The crisis stems in part from predictable forces — limited vaccine supplies and slow rollouts, weak health systems and fragile economies that make stay-at-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 200m whose president has consistently dismissed the threat of the virus and denounced measures to control it, helping fuel a dangerous variant that is now stalking the continent.

The length of Latin America’s epidemic makes it even harder to fight. The region has already endured some of the strictest lockdowns, longest schools closures and largest economic contractions in the world.

Inequality, a longstanding scourge that had been easing before the pandemic, is widening once again, and millions have been tossed back into the precarious positions they thought they had escaped during a relative boom. Many are venting their anger in the streets, defying official pleas to stay home.

If Latin America fails to contain the virus — or if the world fails to step in to help it — new, more dangerous variants may emerge, said Dr Jarbas Barbosa of the Pan-American Health Organization.

The spread of the virus in the region can be attributed at least in part to a variant called P1 first identified in the Brazilian city of Manaus late last year. While the data is far from conclusive, initial studies indicate that P. is more transmissible than the initial virus, and is associated with a higher death rate among younger patients and patients without pre-existing conditions. It can also reinfect people who have already had COVID, though it’s unclear how often that occurs.

P.1 is now present in at least 37 countries, but appears to have spread most thoroughly through South America, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. Across the region, doctors say that the patients coming into hospitals are now far younger and far sicker than before. They’re also more likely to have had the virus already.

In Peru, the National Health Institute documented 782 cases of likely reinfection in the first three months of 2021 alone, a surge from last year. Dr Lely Solari, an infectious disease doctor with the institute, called this “a very significant underestimate.” Official daily death tolls have exceeded previous records in recent days in most of South America’s biggest countries. Yet scientists say that the worst is yet to come.

The director of epidemiology in Colombia’s health ministry, Julián Fernández, said it was likely that variants — including P1 and another variant first found in Britain last year — would be the dominant strains of the virus within two or three months. The region is not prepared. Colombia has been able to issue a first vaccine to just 6% of its population. Several of its neighbours have achieved half that, or less.

Peru, the fifth most populous country in Latin America, has emerged as a microcosm of the region’s mounting struggles. Like many of its neighbours, Peru made significant economic progress in the last two decades, using raw material exports to lift income, shrink inequality and raise middle-class dreams. But the boom brought few stable jobs, led to little health care investment 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 moved quickly to lock down the country. But with millions of people working in the informal sector, enforcing quarantines became unsustainable. Cases rose quickly and hospitals soon fell into crisis. By October, the country became the first in the world to record more than 100 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.The actual death toll is far higher, because many of the dead have not been included in the official count of coronavirus patients.

Then, mercifully, new cases began to subside. A government study in the capital, Lima, found that 40 percent of residents had coronavirus antibodies. Officials said the population had reached such a high level of immunity that a second wave might not be so bad. The government opted not to impose a lockdown during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

But in January, just as the United States and other nations began robust, if sometimes chaotic, vaccine rollouts, a second surge began in Peru — and this wave has been even more brutal than the first.

Vaccines arrived in Peru in February, followed quickly by anger after some politically connected people jumped the line to get vaccinated first. More recently, multiple government agencies have begun investigating whether some health workers have asked for bribes in exchange for access to scarce hospital beds.

The crisis has plunged nations like Peru into grief, ripping at the social fabric. This month, thousands of poor and newly poor Peruvians began to occupy empty swaths of land in southern Lima, with many saying that they were doing so because they had lost their livelihoods amid the pandemic.


Full report in The New York Times (Open access)

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