South America produced some of the most horrific episodes of the pandemic last year, with mass graves dug in the Brazilian Amazon and bodies dumped on pavements in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. But at the end of 2020 there was some hope that with the onset of vaccination the worst might have passed. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, even claimed the crisis had reached its “tail-end” in December.
Such predictions have proved grotesquely misguided. Brazil’s death toll has since more than doubled to more than 400,000, after an explosion of infections caused a catastrophic healthcare collapse. At least 100,000 Brazilians have died in the last 36 days and 100,000 more are expected to lose their lives before July.
Many of Brazil’s neighbours are also in dire straits, including Uruguay, which was once heralded as a regional success story but in April suffered its deadliest month. On Thursday Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia all registered their highest daily death tolls with 561, 505 and 106 fatalities respectively. The mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, urged residents to stay at home, warning they faced “the most difficult two weeks – not of the pandemic, but of our lives”. The situation in authoritarian Venezuela is harder to gauge, but also appears to be deteriorating.
Last week South America, home to 5.5% of the world’s population, suffered nearly 32% of all reported Covid deaths. “What’s happening is a catastrophe,” Argentina’s health minister, Carla Vizzotti, admitted as her country’s Covid restrictions were extended until late May.
Public health experts say South America’s agony is partly the result of longstanding structural problems, including underfunded health systems and poverty. Effective quarantine policies have proved impossible to enforce in a region where between 30% and 60% of workers are employed in the informal sector.
“People need to eat,” said Michel Castro, a 31-year-old resident of Rio’s Chatuba favela, who nearly died from Covid but understood why neighbours were still going out to work. Castro scoffed at the emergency payments that hard-up families were being offered by the government. “It’s nothing. It’s like trying to quench somebody’s thirst with a pipette,” he said.
Political chaos has also been crucial to the virus’s spread. Bolsonaro’s sabotage of social distancing has earned him international notoriety and made him the focus of a domestic parliamentary inquiry that began last week. Upheaval in Peru – which has had three presidents since the pandemic started and is about to elect a fourth – has also hampered efforts to tame an outbreak which has killed at least 61,000 people.
But many specialists suspect South America’s current collapse is largely the work of the more contagious P1 variant that emerged late last year in the Brazilian city of Manaus and has spent 2021 rampaging across the continent, from Lima to Buenos Aires.
“Manaus should have been shut down: airports, ports, roads. This wasn’t done,” said Jesem Orrelana, a local epidemiologist who believes Brazil’s failure to contain the variant is to blame for South America’s current woes.
Orrelana said P1 was being aided and abetted by public exhaustion with South America’s seemingly endless epidemic, with many resuming their normal lives despite soaring infections and deaths.
The vaccination of older age groups offered some hope that future waves would be less deadly – but even that was not assured if new variants appeared. “You cannot underestimate coronavirus,” Orrelana warned. “If it was capable of doing this in 2021, it could easily do it again in 2022.”