While some areas of Europe and the USA are beginning to see a flattening of the Covid-19 transmission curve and subsequent death rates, much of the rest of the world is still in the early stages of the pandemic’s first wave. Business lock-downs and population quarantines have become the widely accepted means of reducing the spread of infections across the globe. Governments — in countries both rich and poor — are now grappling with how to restart sagging economies without risking an overwhelmed healthcare sector.
Meanwhile, millions of workers in the informal economies of the developing world — who scrape together what they and their families need to survive on a daily basis — are becoming increasingly restless as insufficient government efforts fail to supply food to the neediest across the globe. Many governments in Latin America are facing the threat of medical worker strikes unless they can provide the personal protective equipment (PPE) desperately needed by staff.
As rich and poor countries compete for the same limited international supplies of PPE as well as ventilators for the most severely ill patients, a pattern is beginning to form. The developing world is being priced out of the very supplies necessary to fight the pandemic.
As infections and deaths continue to increase in the poorest regions of the world, indications are that social unrest will grow as well. This is especially true in countries such as Chile and Ecuador that saw weeks of protests, rioting and looting during last fall’s uprising against corrupt, institutionalized systems that have always favored the wealthy, leading to some of the world’s most dramatic economic inequality. Such raw feelings will be easily reawakened by the ongoing ravages of hunger, illness and death associated with Covid-19.
Here are some of the stories I followed for readers this week across Latin America and beyond.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro continues to deny the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak in his country, preferring to parrot Donald Trump’s early line that its a “little flu,” and arguing that protecting the economy comes first. Again in lock step with Trump, Bolsonaro has placed hope in the use of unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine.
In a further blow to the health of Brazilian citizens, this week Bolsonaro fired his country’s Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, an orthopedist, who supported the promotion of broad isolation measures enacted by state governors. As is true in a variety of countries in the Americas at the moment, Bolsonaro has been at odds with local and regional leaders who know the situation on the ground and are taking the necessary steps to protect their populations.
A severe lack of testing — which provides information about rates of infection — makes it impossible for officials to institute effective strategies in their fight against transmission. According to data provided by the John’s Hopkin’s University coronavirus center, Brazil has more than 36,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of April 18. Experts believe this is merely the tip of the iceberg because the country has tested just under 300 people for every million inhabitants. In the US, by comparison, this figure stands at 9,482 per million.
The government of Ecuador has also been slow to respond to the unfolding health crisis in the rugged Andean mountain country. The southwest province of Guayas, which includes the country’s largest city and financial center, Guayaquil, has faced an unprecedented wave of deaths inside homes. Sanitation crews found themselves unable to cope with the situation causing many families to resort to placing the bodies of loved-ones on the streets (I am not sharing any of the photos) in an effort to stave off more infection within households.
Jorge Wated, director of a joint military and police task force recently charged with collecting and burying bodies, reported that there were officially 6,703 recorded deaths in Guayas Province from April 1 to April 15. The average of monthly deaths in Guayas is 2,000 and government officials are unable to account for the striking increase which has yet to be attributed to Covid-19.
Guayaquil doctor Gustavo Quinde is far more outspoken about the local virus death toll which he believes could number 4,000 or 5,000 in Guayaquil (a city of approximately two million residents) if the last weeks of March are included in the tally. According to Quinde, “We are suffering an extraordinary contagion that is not being reported.” [Note: The actual number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in Guayaquil may fall somewhere between the Ecuadorian government’s estimate of several hundred and Quinde’s figure of 4-5,000.]
Ecuador’s government, headed by President Lenín Moreno Garcés, has shown itself to be incapable of taking positive steps to either contain the spread of the virus or adequately provide necessities for a population under quarantine. The president has authorized the distribution of US$60 per month to the neediest of families but this small sum is obviously insufficient in a country where the price of eggs (a staple of locals diets) recently doubled. Many families fear hunger — which they know all too well — more than contracting the coronavirus.
Colombia’s national government reluctantly heeded the warnings of regional governors and the mayors of the country’s major cities and instituted a mandatory quarantine beginning on March 23. The country’s borders were completely sealed and all commercial airline passenger services ceased operation. While it’s believed that these strict measures have significantly slowed the spread of Covid-19, virus testing has been hampered by many factors, most recently due to the reported international shortage of testing reagents (enzymes) that are necessary for determining test results.
There are currently discussions surrounding how to reopen certain sectors of the economy as early as April 27, and indeed Colombia’s unpopular president, Ivan Duque, has already publicly announced such changes. However, this wouldn’t be the first time the country’s leader has walked back his proclamations in recent weeks. The Colombian medical establishment, fearing the collapse of the country’s underfunded healthcare system from even a modest epidemic, has been vehemently against any reopening of social or economic activity.
Government efforts so far to help those whose livelihoods have collapsed from the strictly-imposed regulations — particularly the informal workers who comprise as much as half of the working population in some locations — have been stymied by corruption and lack of coordination. According to the local English-language daily Colombia Reports, watchdog agencies stopped a government aid program after finding that the National Planning Department was sending emergency stipends meant for the poor to ghost accounts.
Thousands of Venezuelan refugees have returned to their home country over the past 3 weeks as the quarantine has taken away their means of making a living on the streets of Colombia’s major cities. This week there have been protests (along with looting) in poor neighborhoods of the country’s two largest cities, Medellín and Bogotá, due to the failure of food distribution programs. Surviving the near-future will require government agencies to redirect funds to feeding the hungry, which is already being done by individuals and local charitable organizations.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, there are also positive developments coming from joint ventures between Colombia’s universities and industry.
Medellin medical engineer Mauricio Toro, along with the local University of Antioquia, the CES University and local innovation institute Ruta N, have developed a low-cost, open-source mechanical ventilator that will go into production in Medellin beginning as early as next week. Besides freely sharing the plans and technology for these life-saving oxygen providing machines, initial mass production plans are to add 1,500 to the estimated 5,000 ventilators for adults currently in use in Colombia’s hospitals.
I’ll leave you this week with a wacky photo from one of Bangkok, Thailand’s hospitals showing the lengths to which some institutions are going to ensure social distancing in situations that would have once seemed impossible. 🙂
peace and good health~henry
Header Image: New York Times Reporter Federico Rios Escobar via Twitter on April 15.