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Latin America Report

P.1 And Politics: Will Semana Santa Make Latin America's New COVID Surge Worse?

Eraldo Peres
A Brazilian demonstrator protests President Jair Bolsonaro's COVID-19 pandemic policies outside the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia last week as the country set daily pandemic death records.

COVID-19 cases and deaths are spiking anew in Latin America — and its spring break week could create superspreader conditions for a dangerous virus variant.

Here in the United States we’re seeing an unexpected increase of COVID-19 cases, even as millions of people are getting vaccinated.

But America's new surge is minor compared to what Latin America is suddenly experiencing. That’s especially and frighteningly true in Brazil, which is setting new COVID death records — more than 3,000 per day in the past week.

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WLRN's Luis Hernandez and Americas editor Tim Padgett talked about this alarming development in Brazil and around Latin America — and how things could get worse there this week during the Christian Holy Week known in the region as Semana Santa.

Excerpts from their conversation:

HERNANDEZ: Tim, let’s obviously start in Brazil, where things seem to be in utter COVID meltdown. What has happened there?

PADGETT: The short answer is: P.1 and politics. P.1 is the very aggressive COVID-19 virus variant that first appeared in Brazil’s Amazon region and is now ravaging the country. It’s twice as contagious as other coronavirus strains — and that’s why intensive care units in most Brazilian hospitals right now are at greater than 90% capacity. It’s also why Brazil’s daily COVID death toll is skyrocketing. Brazil has registered about 315,000 COVID fatalities — that’s the world’s third highest tally — and more than a third of those are in just the past three months.

And the politics?

It’s no secret that right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his political allies have dismissed the pandemic and have undermined social-distancing efforts. Critics say that’s a big reason Brazil was so vulnerable to this new devastating surge. Last week Bolsonaro told a crowd of mostly unmasked supporters that officials who still enforce social distancing are “little tyrants.” He even said he might get the military “to protect” Brazilians from social distancing.

READ MORE: America's Vaccine Rollout May Be Dysfunctional, But Latin America's Is Disastrous

You’ve mentioned before that Brazil’s vaccination effort has so far been dysfunctional at best. Does it stand any chance of curtailing this new outbreak?

Unfortunately, not at the rate it’s going now. Its vaccine rollout has been astonishingly slow: Almost 30% of the U.S. population has received a first dose; Brazil, not even 7%. And a lot of that has to do with that political negligence I just talked about. Brazil's foreign minister had to resign on Monday — and in just two years Bolsonaro has gone through four health ministers — because of all the chaos.

Things are finally starting to pick up – and last week Brazil even announced it has developed its own vaccine. But it won’t be ready for a rollout until July or probably later.

This week is essentially Latin America’s spring break, and people like to congregate. But last year Brazil saw almost twice as many new COVID cases during Semana Santa as it did the week before.

It looks like the other big trouble spot at the moment is Mexico. It suddenly has as many COVID deaths now as Brazil?

Even more, Luis. This too is astonishing. Last week, Mexico’s official COVID death toll was 200,000. Then suddenly over the weekend the Mexican government revised that number upward to more than 320,000. That makes Mexico now, not Brazil, the country with the second-highest number of COVID fatalities behind the U.S. Even before this adjustment, Mexico had the world's highest COVID cases-to-deaths ratio, according to Johns Hopkins.

But this also reflects how badly left-wing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has handled his country’s pandemic. He’s been just as cavalier as Bolsonaro about the whole thing — he rarely wears a mask, either. And Mexico’s vaccine rollout has been even more sluggish: less than 5% of its population has gotten a first dose. Fortunately, this month the U.S. said it would send 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico.


What are some other places in Latin America to watch? You mentioned Chile. Wasn’t it supposed to be one of the positive stories right now?

Right, Chile’s vaccination rate is higher than the U.S.’s. But last Friday it recorded its highest daily number of COVID cases since the pandemic began, and the country’s had to go into lockdown again. Chile was supposed to hold a big election next month to create an assembly to write a new national constitution; but now they’ve had to delay it until May. That’s a lesson for the rest of us — that even successful vaccination doesn’t mean you can’t still see surges for a while.

Esteban Felix
An elderly man receives his first COVID-19 vaccine dose two months ago in Santiago, Chile, the country with Latin America's highest vaccination rate so far.

Elsewhere in Latin America, you have to watch any country that borders Brazil’s Amazon region — Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, for example — because that P.1 COVID variant I talked about earlier is spreading fast. Colombia is suddenly seeing twice as many new COVID cases per day as it did at the beginning of this month.

This week is what’s known in Spanish and Portuguese as Semana Santa, or the Christian Holy Week. And health officials in Latin America are worried it could be a super-spreader moment?

You bet. Peru went on lockdown again this week for that very reason. This week is essentially Latin America’s spring break — and people like to congregate, at beaches, country retreats, religious events like the Good Friday processions.

Last year Brazil saw almost twice as many new COVID cases during Semana Santa as it did the week before. So if you have family or friends in Latin America, you might want call them this week and remind them of that.