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How Latin America is Handling The Coronavirus

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Ana Torrijos thought she was going home to Panama for three weeks to visit family. Three months later, she is still in Panama, her life put completely on hold because of the pandemic. 

“They closed the airport when I was here, so I have not been able to return to Los Angeles,” Torrijos told Revolution English. “I continue to pay the rent for my apartment. I left all my things there and I don’t have anyone and nobody can come out to help me and clear my room so I can’t stop leasing it. It’s a total waste of money.”

Torrijos’ situation is similar to many who went to vacation or to visit family but couldn’t come back because of the travel restrictions. Just this week, the U.S. implemented a new travel ban on non-residents coming from Brazil, whose cases have grown in the last couple of weeks. 

For Torrijos, being with family has been life saving. However, restrictions in her country still make everyday things difficult. Panama made headlines last month for adopting a peculiar way of maintaining social distance by allowing males to go out on some days of the week and females in others. The measure was not entirely welcome, as some considered it to be limiting for the LGBTQ community. Nonetheless, the country has been doing well in keeping the infection numbers low, with only 11,447 confirmed cases and 313 deaths.

However, Panama’s situation is not the norm for most Latin American countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently revealed that the Americas are now the epicenter of the world pandemic. Additionally, they said that Latin America has now passed Europe and the United States in daily infections. 

“Now is not the time for countries to ease restrictions,” Carissa Etienne, WHO director for the Americas and head of the Pan American Health Organization, said via videoconference. “Our region has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ettienne also spoke about the organization’s concern because of the growing outbreaks in certain parts of Latin America. According to a forecast from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the countries that are in worst shape right now are Brazil, Peru, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Peru was one of the first South American countries to close its borders, which have remained closed since mid March. It has also become infamous for its strict restrictions, including a similar approach to Panama where women go out one day and men another. However, the crisis in the country is far from controlled, as they now face 130,000 cases and 3,788 deaths. 

“This situation is not just a health emergency, but a health catastrophe, defined as a situation where the pandemic has overtaken the response capacity of the health sector,” Dr. Alfredo Celis of the Medical College of Peru told CNN en Español.

The biggest challenge in trying to control the spread of the virus in Peru, is the fact that 72% of its people work in the informal economy, while about 30% of the population share their house with more than 4 people. All of this makes enforcing social distancing extremely difficult. Fear is growing as about 85% of Peru’s ICU beds with ventilators are currently occupied.

These problems are not exclusive to Peruvians, as many Latin American countries share similar statistics. The health system is “very close to the limit”, according to the Chilean president, where there are 77,961 confirmed cases and 806 deaths.

“We are very conscious of the fact that the health system is under a lot of pressure,” President Sebastián Piñera said. “(…) We have had a very large increase in the needs and demand for medical attention, and for intensive care unit beds and ventilators.”

The centre of the country’s outbreak is the capital Santiago, which has been under a strict lockdown since March. The country’s frontiers have been completely closed since March as well, except for Chilean citizens and residents, and all of those entering the nation are subject to a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.

Similar restrictions were placed in Ecuador, who in the beginnings of the crisis, was the most affected country in South America. Ecuador became infamous for its collapsing health system, which led to the citizens burning their deceased’s bodies on the streets. As of now, the country has reported 37,355 cases and 3,203 deaths, and it has been on National Emergency since March 15.

Mexico, on the other hand, took a little longer to implement measures, but did so when the cases mounted. Thus far, 74,560 cases have been confirmed while 8,134 deaths have been reported. However, a new study has argued that the number could be much higher. But in spite of the gloom pronostics, Mexico said it intended to start reopening the country by June 15.

“We will continue to be at a red (level) if the number of beds in hospitals in Mexico City continues to increase and if there is a (bed) occupancy of more than 65 percent,” said Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.

Countries like Colombia and El Salvador have also been cautious in their handling of the situation. Colombian President Ivan Duque announced that he would extend the national quarantine until May 31, while the country’s borders will remain closed with domestic and international flights banned through June 30. Duque also extended the national health emergency, which has been in effect since Marc, through August 31. The country has reported 21,981 confirmed cases and 750 deaths.

El Salvador’s approach, however, has been a bit more controversial since President Nayib Bukkele has been criticized for being “too hard” with the allowed measures to keep people off the street. There have also been complaints because of the suspension of the public transport system, on which 80% of the Salvadorians rely. Nevertheless, the president’s natonal approval has remained high, and the measures have managed to keep the number of deaths relatively low at 36 with 2,042 cases.  

Other Latin American countries have been equally careful, with Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic implementing security measures both for inside the country and travel-wise. 

However, one country that has not followed the same pattern is Brazil. Since the beginning, President Jair Bolsonaro has been very hesitant to take action in the face of the pandemic, calling the virus “a little flu.”

“So what?” Bolsonaro told reporters earlier this month when asked about the record 474 deaths that day. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

It is no surprise, then, that Brazil’s daily death rate has now become the world’s highest, with 392,000 cases and 24,549 deaths.

The IHME study warned that those numbers could five-fold to 125,000 by early August. The study also estimated that by that time, deaths are expected to rise to nearly 12,000 in Chile, 7,000 in Mexico, 6,000 in Ecuador, 5,500 in Argentina and 4,500 in Colombia.

“All countries have vulnerable populations and we are seeing a greater impact in terms of disease, disease severity, poor outcomes in groups that are vulnerable,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit. “It highlights the inequalities that we see in vulnerable groups.”

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.