Is Latin America prepared to fight coronavirus?

By Katy Watson
BBC South America correspondent, São Paulo

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro takes a selfie with supporters in front of the Planalto PalaceImage source, AFP
Image caption,
President Bolsonaro took selfie with supporters outside the presidential palace on Sunday despite government warnings against large gatherings

The number of coronavirus cases in Latin America has not reached European proportions yet but judging by decisions taken in the last few days, governments here are not taking any chances.

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro announced that the whole country, already suffering from years of economic and political turmoil, would be under quarantine from Tuesday after the number of cases there rose from 16 to 33 in one day.

“We're facing a serious pandemic,” he told the nation in a televised address. “If we don’t stop it in time, cut it off and control it, it could bring us down.”

He was not alone in declaring drastic restrictions. Peru had already declared a national emergency, closed its borders and told everybody to self-quarantine for 14 days while Chile said it would close its borders after cases more than doubled there to 155.

Most of the region is introducing strict measures on movement and schools, shops and flights are shutting down. Yet coronavirus has only just arrived here - so have countries learned lessons from Europe? Or are they acting too soon?

‘It’s unpredictable’

“The sharing of information on coronavirus is a fundamental response to the international crisis but there are differences,” says Prof Deisy Ventura of São Paulo University’s Public Health School.

Brazil, with a population of just over 200 million, is the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in the region, 234. It has not shut its borders but in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, schools and universities have been told to close and public events have been called off.

“There is a limit to what we can learn in a continental country that also has important inequalities,” says Prof Ventura. “So, as much as we try to learn, it’s unpredictable how this disease will spread.”

Some experts, though, are upbeat. They point to warmer weather during the southern hemisphere’s summer as preventing the spread, as well as demographics.

Latin America has a young population that can ride out the virus better - the median age in Brazil, for example, is just under 30; in Colombia, 27.4. Compare that with Italy, the European country worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak, at 44.

Cross-contamination, too, is less of a concern, according to Prof Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a Colombian immunology expert. “In Latin America, despite the fact there are large cities like Mexico City and São Paulo, the concentration of people is lower than in Europe so the possibility of transmission is smaller,” he says.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Bolsonaro supporters, some wearing surgical masks, ignored coronavirus warnings and protested in São Paulo

But some warn against complacency in such a large and varied region.

“We need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario,” says Dr Jarbas Barbosa, Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization (Paho). “We cannot take any kind of benefits from the climate or from the demographic profile we have. We need to look at what’s happening in the countries, assess the weaknesses, assess what works and try and implement them.”

Not all leading by example

While Latin American leaders seem to be on top of implementation to stem the rise, not all are leading by example. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, leader of the region’s largest economy, has dismissed precautions against coronavirus as “hysteria" and “fantasy".

This even after several members of his team tested positive for coronavirus after travelling to the US to meet President Donald Trump. Mr Bolsonaro himself is expected to take another precautionary test for the virus after, he said, results showed up as negative.

Media caption,

Watch how to safely clean your smartphone

But he came out of reported self-isolation on Sunday to mingle with thousands of fans who had come to march in protest at Brazil’s Congress and judiciary. Coming in for a great deal of criticism because even his health ministry warned about attending large gatherings, he certainly took a very different approach to his neighbours in the region.

“The president responded terribly at the weekend, he committed serious acts that went against the national interest and could have very negative repercussions on Brazilians’ health,” says Prof Ventura. “This is a president whose task is essentially to make ideological propaganda.”

Scenes of crowded beaches, bars and restaurants across Brazil on the weekend were also a source of concern for many. But the country’s official response to the outbreak is considered to be in safe hands.

“The technical area of the government is working well, despite the president,” says Prof Ventura, pointing to the critical mass of highly-qualified health workers who are leading the way. “From a political point of view, the most important point is that the health ministry continues to lead the response.”

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
People have been stockpiling food in Buenos Aires leading to shortages of certain items in some supermarkets

The problem, Prof Ventura says, lies in the political nature of responses.

President Maduro of Venezuela reacted in such a way in his Monday night speech, warning that other leaders had not taken the issue seriously enough and announced a nationwide quarantine - a drastic step that some countries have been reluctant to take.

“Countries need to adopt the measures that relate to their current stage of transmission,” says Dr Jarbas Barbosa, from the Paho. “If they start too early, those measures will last a long time and will have a social and economic impact,” such as shortages of medical supplies.

And that, for Venezuela’s already ailing health system, is a risk.

“Nobody’s capable of completely containing the virus, but in the best of cases, you can stop it spreading quickly and allow the health systems to respond better,” says Dr Jaime Torres, the head of infectology at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the Central University of Caracas.

“The response depends on the strength of a country’s health system and as such, a weakened health system, with a lack of human resources, materials and infrastructure will find it much harder to cope.”

Media caption,

Watch how germs spread and how you can prevent it

While the state of underfunded and overcrowded hospitals is a worry across the region during a pandemic like this, Venezuela’s hospitals are on their knees and that will dictate the country’s ultimate success in tackling the virus.

Latin America is watching - and waiting - to see whether its tough approach was the right one.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Silva