In the face of severe wealth inequalities, crime and corruption, civil unrest, shattered public health systems and collapsing economies, South America’s governments are each handling the pandemic in the ways they know best. These vary nationally as well as regionally – but one predictable outcome of the strained conditions is that published data may not be the most reliable.
Quick links: Venezuela | Uruguay | Paraguay | Bolivia | Argentina | Chile | Peru | Colombia | Brazil | Tests & Vaccinations
Amongst the chaos throughout the continent, there is one notable outlier:
This is a country where the minimum wage is £2.57 a month and a litre of milk is £1.00, with inflation running at 6,500% a year. Its people are not well cared for, the health service is so broken that hospitals have no medicine; journalists and medical staff are jailed for speaking out and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) were forced to pull out of Caracas. If suspected of having Covid-19 symptoms or being contact with someone who has, Venezuelans are sent to compulsory ‘quarantine’ in dirty, crowded detention centres under military control – this includes 90,000 returning economic migrants.
There’s no doubt that Venezuela’s published figures are inaccurate. Sources within the health service have said the real Covid death toll is 20 times the official number.
Although the government missed the deadline for the COVAX scheme, vaccines have been set aside for Venezuela. The country’s saying it cannot pay for them but recently took delivery of 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Meanwhile, president Maduro has told his people that Carvativir, an extract of thyme, will cure Covid-19.
Uruguay & Paraguay
These two smaller countries are genuinely doing well, particularly Uruguay which has a robust if underfunded health service and, importantly, strong public trust in its government. The country anticipated the pandemic with a beefed-up network of local clinics, an organised social distancing system and financial supports. Enough vaccinations have been ordered to immunise up to 80% of the population.
Paraguay started off badly, trying to control infection through military enforcement with arbitrary detention in ‘quarantine centres’. Since last summer it seems to have moved to a more humane approach. Additional health support workers have been trained and deployed, government subsidies have increased, and a vaccination programme has been announced although it won’t start until the end of March. New infections are running high, and curfews are currently in place alongside other restrictions.
The poorest South American country by some measures, Bolivia’s having a rough time with the pandemic. There were two changes of government last year, multiple ministers caught Covid-19, and an ongoing scandal involves corruption over the purchase of ventilators. Various lockdowns, some brutal, and the cancellation of an entire school year left Bolivians in limbo while cases rose very fast over the summer (Dec-Jan). Schools have now re-opened, just as the level of coronavirus deaths becomes unmanageable. Bolivian excess deaths have far exceeded their published data.
“Authorities have found corpses strewn on the floors of garages, porches, and hallways of funeral homes”
JORGE SILVA, VICE-MINISTER CONSUMER AFFAIRS
“At the rate we are going, there will be a total collapse … We are going to have patients dying in the streets”
RICARDO LANDIVAR, DIRECTOR LA PAZ MEDICAL COLLEGE
Amid fears that people are no longer using face masks or social distancing, doctors have demanded a full lockdown. The government’s reluctant. Vaccination of healthcare workers has begun.
Argentina’s reporting high infection levels, which is a worry as its testing coverage is low. Vaccinations have begun and the health minister has just resigned over queue-jumping.
After a sudden rise in the Spring (late September), Argentina’s Covid fatalities reduced but have stayed at a fairly high level.
Chile’s achieved South America’s best testing and vaccination rates. Deaths have increased over the last four weeks, but minimally.
Last June, the government announced it would include suspected Covid-19 deaths in its mortality count. Consequently, their excess deaths and Covid mortality come to similar figures – this gives us some confidence in their published data.
Line = excess deaths; Shading = Covid-19. Source: The Economist
Peru’s health and foreign affairs ministers resigned this month after reports surfaced that hundreds of government officials, including former President Martin Vizcarra, received jabs before vaccines were widely available.
Their reported Covid mortality figures are a fraction of their excess deaths. Peruvian testing is very low, and it is probable that large numbers of coronavirus deaths are being misreported as due to other causes. César Munayco, specialist at the National Center for Epidemiology, Prevention and Disease Control of the Ministry of Health, estimated that his department’s statistics record only a third of pandemic deaths as due to the virus.
Peru’s reported level of daily Covid fatalities is climbing, and the pandemic has increased the country’s mortality by 24% on official figures alone! If Munayco is correct, the final analysis will show that mortality increased by nearly 75%.
This country’s reporting looks pretty accurate. The pandemic has caused a 22% increase in mortality, with deaths steadily climbing to a peak last month. The government put the brakes on its premature re-opening scheme and has extended its package of support and subsidies. Testing coverage is fairly low but both cases and deaths seem to be heading downwards.
Following president Bolsonaro’s suppression of Covid-19 reports last April, Brazil’s public health department started releasing the figures on its own initiative. Since then, they’ve looked fairly realistic – coronavirus deaths are in line with excess mortality. Bolsonaro is anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown, and generally problematic.
This post isn’t long enough to detail all that’s going wrong with Brazil’s pandemic response, but the city of Manaus has made the news many times. After a horrible first wave in which two-thirds of residents caught the virus and thousands died within days, it was widely assumed that their grief would at least have brought herd immunity to the city. Last month it happened all over again – and worse. Industrial-sized graveyards are being dug once more, in tens of thousands.
Brazil is suffering from all three of the worrying new variants: South African, British and Brazilian (which may well have evolved in Manaus). The country carries out very few tests, but a vaccination programme is under way despite the president.
Testing & Vaccinations
Tests and vaccinations performed in South America, with the UK and USA for comparison.
Source: Our World in Data
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