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Too Bad Scientists Aren't On Sunday's Mexico, Peru Ballots. They're More Credible

 SCIENCE WARNINGS Cemetery workers in Iquitos, Peru, dig graves in March for the country's growing number of COVID-19 victims.
Rodrigo Abd
SCIENCE WARNINGS Cemetery workers in Iquitos, Peru, dig graves in March for the country's growing number of COVID-19 victims.

COMMENTARY The pandemic has finally given scientists more standing in Latin America. Let's hope that helps give the region's bad politicos less of it.

Mexico and Peru are holding elections Sunday with one big problem and one bright prospect in common.

The problem: both events are maddening reminders of what’s wrong with Latin America. The prospect: recent COVID-19 announcements in both countries raise the encouraging possibility that the pandemic — and the new standing it’s given science in the region — could help correct what’s wrong with Latin America.

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Peru’s presidential election is the especially maddening reminder. Voters have to choose between socialist Pedro Castillo, a guy who can’t decide whether he’s a Leninist or a fascist, and arch-right winger Keiko Fujimori, a woman who seems fine with just the fascist tag. It's a runoff election, but there’s really only one result Peruvians can check off: even more governmental dysfunction than they've already got.

Mexico’s midterm election choices aren’t much easier to stomach. On one side is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, and his leftist MORENA coalition; on the other is a coalition led by the corrupt and decrepit Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. If AMLO wins — meaning if MORENA captures two-thirds of Mexico’s lower house of Congress — he'll likely see a green light to turn the authoritarian populism he’s been fine-tuning into full caudillo mode. If he loses, the PRI becomes Mexico’s main opposition force.

Make that Mexico’s second most important opposition force. The strongest is el narco — the bloodthirsty drug cartels that have murdered almost 90 local candidates during this midterm election cycle.

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At this grim point you probably want to hear the encouraging possibility. Unfortunately, it also involves a lot of mortality. To wit: both elections come on the heels of both countries being forced to acknowledge their official COVID-19 death tolls are far higher than previously reported.

But trust me, this has a silver lining.

This week Peru had to announce that due to a review by independent scientists, its actual COVID fatalities are about 185,000 — triple the government’s number. That gives Peru the world’s highest per-capita death count and the fifth-highest overall.

It puts Peru just behind Mexico — which this week upped its own COVID mortality stat to almost 228,000 after a review by health ministry scientists. Many of those scientists insist it’s much higher, perhaps topping 300,000. In fact, scientists’ surveys of “excess” deaths in Mexico since the pandemic began forced the government to concede in March that the real COVID toll is some 60 percent higher than its official data.

For all the tragedy and sorrow the pandemic has dumped on Latin America, it's also witnessed a lot of folks in white lab coats pushing back against their governments' dishonesty and negligence.

Did I use the word “scientists” enough in the last couple paragraphs? I hope so, because for all the tragedy and sorrow the pandemic has dumped on Latin America — arguably the region hardest hit — it has also witnessed a lot of folks in white lab coats pushing back against the dishonest COVID narratives of leaders like Mexico’s AMLO.


From the pandemic’s start last year, AMLO has almost clownishly downplayed its severity — despite becoming infected himself, like two of the hemisphere’s other clownish populists, right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Peru’s presidents (there’ve been three during the pandemic) haven’t been as irresponsible in that regard — but they represent a governing class that has irresponsibly left the country with South America’s lowest pubic health expenditure as a share of GDP. Dr. Godofredo Talavera, head of Peru's medical federation, had long warned the country would be waylaid by a pandemic as a result — and he’s been vindicated.

 Dr. Godofredo Talavera, head of the Peruvian Medical Federation
Dr. Godofredo Talavera, head of the Peruvian Medical Federation

When COVID’s finally just another virus in Latin America, the fact that scientists had the final word on the pandemic — and the AMLOs, Bolsonaros and negligent elites didn't — could go a long way toward raising the low stature they and what they stand for has historically suffered in the region, while diminishing the profile of the AMLOs, Bolsonaros and negligent elites.

My colleague Mac Margolis presciently anticipated this in April 2020, in the pandemic’s early days, when he pointed out how Bolsonaro’s then-Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta refused to indulge the president’s deadly denialism — and how scientists like him around the continent were winning newfound respect. “One of the [pandemic’s] rare pluses,” Margolis wrote, “is that health professionals suddenly have become some of Latin America’s most credible figures.”

And that, let’s hope, will make the politicos they’re confronting, contradicting and counseling want to act more credibly too.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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