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Why Covid-19 fears rise in South America as Brazil becomes world’s second largest hotspot

With a steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases and ill-equipped and under-funded public health systems, other parts of South America also find themselves in the midst of an uphill battle against the deadly virus.

Written by Rahel Philipose | New Delhi | Updated: May 23, 2020 1:37:27 pm
Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro corruption, brazil news Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who famously dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, has received global criticism for repeatedly flouting social distancing guidelines and lockdown strategies. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

As the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide surge past the 5 million mark, Brazil — which registered 330,890 infections and 21,048 Covid-related deaths — now has the second-highest number of reported cases in the world, after the United States.

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows Brazil has now surpassed Russia to emerge as the world’s number 2 hotspot for COVID-19. This comes a day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared South America a “new epicentre” of the global health crisis.

With a steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases and ill-equipped and under-funded public health systems, other parts of South America also find themselves in the midst of an uphill battle against the deadly virus. As per Johns Hopkins University data, with 111,698 recorded cases, Peru is twelfth in the list of nations worst-hit by the pandemic, right after India. Mexico, the third worst-hit Latin American nation, has crossed Peru in the number of Covid-related deaths. The country has recorded 6,989 deaths, data shows. Chile trails behind with 61,857 COVID-19 cases.

Brazil President Bolsonaro still dismissive

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who famously dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, has received global criticism for repeatedly flouting social distancing guidelines and lockdown strategies. The president has stressed that these measures are likely to cripple Brazil’s economy beyond repair.

Read| Bolsonaro’s fiery rhetoric on display in controversial video

The leader joined an anti-lockdown rally this week, posing for photographs and interacting with hundreds of supporters gathered outside his presidential offices. The rally took place two days after the country’s second health minister resigned within a month of being appointed to the post.

Former health minister Nelson Teich was appointed after the firing of his predecessor, who had challenged Bolsonaro over his handling of the pandemic. Several of Brazil’s administrators, including state governors of Ceara, Camilo Santana, called the President’s attitude towards the virus “an affront to the nation”. More than 20-top officials in Bolsonaro’s administration have tested positive for COVID-19.

Inadequate medical response

Hospitals in Brazil’s major cities already appear to be bursting at the seams as more COVID-19 patients pour into ICUs across the country every day. A lack of health care equipment and protective gear has also put front-line health workers at risk. Over 116 nurses have died in Brazil, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

The aggressive spread of the virus, particularly in the peripheral regions of the South American nation where health care is not as readily available, makes indigenous groups, migrants and other marginalised communities more vulnerable.

Read| Women’s jobs at risk in Latin America in coronavirus crisis

A study conducted by the University of Sao Paulo Medical School has found that given Brazil’s low testing rate, the number of infections could be about 15 times higher than what official figures have projected.

President Bolsonaro earlier directed his health ministry to approve the use of controversial anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 cases. This is despite the fact that the drug has been seen to have several deadly side effects and studies have been unable to prove its effectiveness in treating the illness. Earlier, US President Donald Trump had claimed that he was taking the anti-malarial drug to prevent coronavirus.

“We are at war. Worse than defeat would be the shame of not putting up a fight,” Bolsonaro, who is often called the Tropical Trump, tweeted after his decision to widen the use of hydroxychloroquine was announced.

Losing battle for South America?

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequality that separates the world’s richest countries from its poorest. In several Latin American countries, Ecuador in particular, reports of bodies being kept in homes and dumped by roadsides have emerged as hospitals struggle to keep afloat amid the pandemic.

As the world scrambles to grab testing kits, protective gear and other crucial medical equipment, poorer countries in South America, Africa and Asia appear to be losing out. While the numbers in some of these countries still appear to be relatively low, experts say that may owe to low levels of testing.

Unlike in the US and Europe, most South American countries continue to see Covid positive cases increase with every passing day — suggesting that the peak is far from sight. Some of these countries are not taking adequate precautions to keep the spread of the virus at bay. Like Brazil, Mexico has been reluctant to impose a strict lockdown.

However, recognising the threat posed by the pandemic, countries like Uruguay, Argentina and Peru are enforcing strict lockdown measures.

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