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From Virus Catastrophe To Vaccine Chaos? Is Latin America Fumbling COVID Again?

China's CoronaVac COVID vaccine being tested in Brazil last month.

COMMENTARY Few regions need an effective COVID vaccine campaign more urgently than Latin America. So far, in Brazil and elsewhere, that's not happening.

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, you’d think Latin America would be a serious distribution point — if really scary pandemic infection and death rates are any criteria.

Instead, thanks to really scary pandemic crisis leadership — right-wing and left-wing — the continent’s vaccine scenario so far looks as harrowing as its virus tragedy.

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Latin America and the Caribbean account for only a twelfth of the global population. But the region has registered a fifth of the world’s novel coronavirus cases and a third of its deaths. Brazil has the world’s third-highest number of infections and the second-highest fatality count, behind the U.S. (which itself accounts for less than one-twentieth of the planet’s population.)

So Latin America’s vaccine campaign should be radiating all the capable heroism of Bolívar crossing the Andes, right? Wrong. In the U.S. this week, nurses wielding vaccination syringes are attracting more paparazzi than Kardashians crossing red carpets. But in Brazil the largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, describes President Jair Bolsonaro’s lame vaccine efforts as “homicidal negligence” and “killer stupidity.”

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Folha’s editorialsays Bolsonaro — a right-wing populist who dismisses COVID-19 as “a little flu” and fiercely attacks mask-wearing and social distancing — has “abandoned” his pandemic-ravaged country and squandered its pharmaceutical logistics prowess.

Even the conservative Brazilian daily O Estado de São Paulo accuses Bolsonaro of “lethal incompetence.” It warns his government is woefully behind the curve on vaccine procurement and approval — made worse this week by a dispute with China over authorizing its CoronaVac vaccine — and even at reversing a national syringe shortage.

Given Latin America's COVID horrors, its vaccine campaign should be radiating all the capable heroism of Bolívar crossing the Andes, right? Wrong. Brazil's largest newspaper calls President Bolsonaro's lame efforts "homicidal negligence."

“There isn’t a single aspect of the handling of this crisis that hasn’t been contaminated by [Bolsonaro’s] obscurantism, neglect, incompetence or dishonesty,” O Estado said in its own editorial over the weekend.

Next door in Argentina, the left-wing government of President Alberto Fernández isn’t getting quite such damning reviews — but a cloud of scandal has formed over its vaccine work anyway.


Fernández at least gets credit for getting off the presidential sofa and acknowledging his own country’s red-alert vaccine needs. Argentina’s per capita COVID death tally ranks ninth in the world and is the second worst in Latin America after Peru. So its White House, the Casa Rosada, last week struck an initial deal for 10 million doses of Russia’s vaccine, called Sputnik V.

Sputnik itself isn’t the real problem. True, naming a vaccine after a space program best known for blasting off first but then losing the race to the Moon doesn’t exactly elicit gushing confidence. But its effectiveness is reportedly 91 percent.

The issue instead, the one Argentine media have been jumping on in recent weeks, is the shady character representing dictatorial Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Buenos Aires negotiating table: former Venezuelan presidential adviser, ambassador, wannabe Hollywood player and all-round leftist opportunist Max Arvelaiz.

Natacha Pisarenko
A public health activist directs a neighborhood disinfecting effort against COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this year.

As I recounted earlier this year, in the 2000s Arvelaiz was in charge of selling the world a b.s. image of then-President Hugo Chávez as a more democratic “21st-century” Marxist. Then, as Venezuela’s ambassador to Brazil — according to the Argentine daily La Nación, citing Brazilian judicial documents it recently verified – Arvelaiz allegedly played bagman when Brazilian construction firms paid Chávez’s regime multi-million-dollar bribes for Venezuelan public works contracts.

Arvelaiz, who has not commented on the allegations, eventually drifted to Hollywood, where he was an executive producer on Oliver Stone’s fawning 2017 Putin documentary, The Putin Interviews. And now he’s peddling Vladimir’s vaccine. So you can forgive Argentines, from Porteños to Patagonians, for wondering if more weirdness lurks in this transaction if not in the vaccine itself. Maybe that’s partly why Fernández says he’ll be the first Argentine to take the Sputnik shot.

A larger problem of course is that Latin America’s developing countries, unlike economic powers such as the U.S., China and the E.U., don’t and usually can’t produce their own vaccines. And so far, according to media reports, the one sizable supply source they're counting on — COVAX, a project led by the World Health Organization to secure sufficient vaccine doses for poorer nations — is coming up short.

Still, that’s no excuse for AWOL vaccine leadership in COVID-devastated countries like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Peru. In fact, it’s all the more reason their suffering citizens right now need leaders who’ll cross the Andes for them.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.