Until this month, it looked like Latin America and the Caribbean might be spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the world saw the tragic images from Ecuador of a sudden and overwhelming number of deaths from the new coronavirus – of corpses lining the sidewalks in the port city of Guayaquil. Meanwhile, the number of cases in Brazil is doubling or tripling every week – and so are the number of deaths.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez and Tim Padgett spoke about the sharp rise of COVID-19 infections in the region – and what could be coming.
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Excerpts from their conversation:
HERNANDEZ: Tim, why has Ecuador gotten hit so hard by the pandemic?
PADGETT: Ecuador apparently got hit with a perfect pandemic storm. It’s a small developing country, but it recently started receiving infected people like Ecuadorean exchange students returning home from hard-hit European countries like Italy. So that set off a chain reaction of infection in Ecuador – especially in Guayaquil. The country’s healthcare infrastructure just hasn’t been able to deal with that high a volume of cases coming that quickly. And that’s why we’ve seen those awful photos of corpses and caskets on the streets there.
How does that compare to other countries in Latin America, though? Brazil right now has by far the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Latin America, right?
Yes, as of Monday it had reported about 23,000 cases. That’s three times more than Ecuador, which has the second-largest number in Latin America along with Chile and Peru. Brazil has also has about 1,300 COVID-19 deaths, which is four times more than Ecuador’s. But the thing that’s really alarming about Brazil right now is the growth rate of infections. We’re seeing on average more than a thousand new cases a day; and the PanAmerican Health Organization, or PAHO, tells us it sees no sign of that letting up this month. Brazil’s peak may not come until June.
And I take it the statements and actions of Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro concerning this crisis have been pretty controversial.
The only way to describe Bolsonaro’s attitude toward the coronavirus pandemic is denial. Brazilians are practicing social distancing and shutting down businesses right now only because their state governors and local mayors are ordering them to. Just over the weekend Bolsonaro was walking around in public with no protective mask; coming up to people and shaking their hands; telling everyone the pandemic is a hoax. Even his own health minister complained on Sunday night about the dangerously conflicting signals Bolsonaro is sending Brazilians.
You’ve reported that Nicaragua and its president are also coming under a lot of international criticism for their handling of the crisis. Why?
Right. The PAHO feels Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his Vice President wife, Rosario Murillo, are in even more reckless denial about the pandemic than Bolsonaro is. Ortega and Murillo have even been calling people out into the streets for pro-government marches to show the world they’re not afraid of the virus. Nicaragua claims it’s had only nine coronavirus cases. But its two neighbors, Costa Rica and Honduras, have a total of more than a thousand. So, you can be excused for wondering if we’re getting an accurate count out of Nicaragua.
Another place in Latin America we’re worried about is Venezuela – because its economic collapse has nearly destroyed its healthcare infrastructure. But so far the number of COVID-19 cases in Venezuela looks remarkably low. Can we trust those numbers?
It’s really difficult to say. Right now Venezuela’s authoritarian regime is telling us the country’s had fewer than 200 cases. Venezuela has taken lockdown measures – it is taking the pandemic seriously. But it has a big shortage of COVID testing kits. And the other big thing to remember is that during Latin America’s Zika epidemic five years ago, that same regime told us Venezuela had only a few thousand cases – but independent medical groups estimated hundreds of thousands of Zika cases there. So again, skepticism is understandable.
And what about other countries that have broken healthcare systems, like Haiti?
Haiti has reported about 35 coronavirus cases and just reported its first death last week. But we already know from the earthquake there a decade ago that it does not have anywhere near the healthcare infrastructure to deal with a serious COVID-19 outbreak. I just said Haiti has 35 cases now? The entire country has only 62 hospital ventilators for coronavirus patients. So yeah, we have to watch this now.
What about the situation in Cuba?
Cuba has almost 750 cases now. But the big concern there isn’t so much the pandemic as much as the brutal economic impact it’s having on the island – largely because its economic lifeline, tourism, has effectively been shut down. Economists are forecasting the worst recession in Cuba in more than a decade – and the food lines there are getting longer.