LOak sacks pile up in hospital parking lots or simply stay on the street, long lines form in front of cemeteries. Despite these terrible images, given the high number of infections in Europe and the United States, South America has so far been seen as a secondary site of the pandemic. But now it’s over.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced that around 106,000 people worldwide had been infected with the corona virus within 24 hours. About a third of the record is due to new infections from Latin American countries, while the United States and Europe each report slightly more than 20 percent of new infections worldwide.
The spread of the virus has been slowed down by measures of social distancing and the stopping of international flights, said Marcos Espinal, director of infectious diseases of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), which acts as the regional office of the WHO. But now the center of the pandemic has shifted, he told WELT.
The health system in Ecuador collapsed
The first official corona case in Latin America was announced on February 26 from Brazil. Since then, the virus has spread across the continent. Corona victims are particularly high in the two most populous countries, Brazil and Mexico, with 18,500 and more than 6,500 dead recently. The numbers are probably much higher because tests are in short supply.
Peru is one of the countries most severely affected, and despite a comparatively strict lockdown with almost 100,000 infections, there are now more cases than China. Over 35,000 cases have been reported in Ecuador. The health system there was already completely overwhelmed in April, hospitals had to reject people, in the financial metropolis of Guayaquil, some of the dead were left on the street or were buried in cardboard boxes. Meanwhile, the curve of new infections in the country is flattening slightly, but the death rate is still the highest on the continent at around 17 victims per 100,000 inhabitants.
In Chile, on the other hand, the number of confirmed infections continues to rise strongly and now stands at over 53,000. On Tuesday, the Department of Health released a recent report that added 3,520 new cases within 24 hours – the highest value of the upward trend that started in April.
The hard-hit capital city of Santiago is currently in the lockdown. The number of newly infected people there clearly exceeds that of those who have recovered and more and more patients have to be ventilated. At 544, the number of deaths in Chile is currently still significantly lower than in the neighboring countries, but the authorities fear the situation will worsen – partly because the intensive care units are almost fully utilized.
The pandemic’s climax is still far away
And Chile is not an isolated case: While the curve has now flattened in most European countries, it is rising sharply in Latin America. Experts estimate that at the end of the pandemic in Brazil alone, around 150,000 people could have died of Covid-19 lung disease.
They also expect the pandemic to peak several weeks away. Health systems could therefore face dramatic situations similar to those experienced by Ecuador. The intensive care beds in Peru’s capital Lima are already 80 percent full. “We are in bad shape. We are at war, ”said Pilar Mazetti, who heads the Peruvian government’s crisis team.
Peru had tried early to combat the spread of the virus. But the numbers rose despite a severe lockdown, the deployment of the army and the controlled return of more than 200,000 people from the metropolis of Lima to the rural areas of the Andes. The exact reasons are unclear.
Populists downplayed the virus
In Brazil, most observers blame the massive outbreak for right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro. He had long ignored the virus and even made fun of it. Meanwhile, however, he begins to shake under criticism, the ministry of health is only temporarily occupied after the resignation of two ministers. There are no consistent measures like in other countries. Bolsonaro wants to start the economy again as soon as possible.
Like Bolsonaro, Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador downplayed the danger for a long time. And although the number of cases is increasing, he recently gave the green light to around 300 municipalities in the country for the resumption of all activities. Back to normal – in the middle of the crisis. Doctors and health experts are concerned, but the Mexican health minister announced that they could stand up. Beds with ventilators are 34 percent full.
A nationwide lockdown was announced in Ecuador in mid-March, almost three weeks after the first case became known. In the following weeks, according to government reports, the bodies of at least 1,350 deceased were collected in the metropolis of Guayaquil alone. A stark contrast to the official statistics, according to which there were fewer than 300 corona deaths nationwide in early April. This discrepancy should be largely due to the lack of tests. A general problem in Latin American countries.
Missing tests are a big problem
Chile and Peru have the highest test rates, with 22 tests per 1000 inhabitants. After that, the rates already drop sharply, in Ecuador there are only 5.8 tests for the same number of people. In Brazil, particularly affected, the rate is 3.5, Mexico comes in last at 1.5. For comparison: In Germany around 43 tests are carried out per 1000 people.
The lack of availability of tests is particularly tricky for Central America. So far, hardly any cases have been reported from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. Nicaragua’s government, for example, admitted for the first time this week that the number of infections is increasing; in a week from 25 to 254.
But even without exact numbers, the overall picture does not look good, according to PAHO director Carissa F. Etienne. “We are deeply concerned about how quickly the pandemic is spreading,” she said recently. In South America, health systems in large urban centers such as Lima and Rio de Janeiro would quickly be overwhelmed, and the Amazon basin would already have similar effects. The PAHO emphasized to WELT that the protection of vulnerable groups, such as indigenous tribes, is therefore essential in the fight against the corona virus in Latin America. And it just started.