Learning lessons from COVID-19 hotspots
While coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infection rates are declining in some countries with high vaccination rates, many countries continue to struggle with the pandemic. As Colombia nears 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, Latin America is the world’s current hotspot. Meanwhile, some other countries — such as Mongolia, Namibia and Seychelles — are also trying to cope with outbreaks.
Today, Latin America is suffering the most. In the Caribbean and Latin America, “rapidly increasing cases and deaths have nearly doubled in the first five months of the year,” according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). A New York Times global tracker clearly shows Latin America as the worst-hit region, based on cases per capita in the previous week. When the Peruvian government revised its COVID-19 data earlier this month, Peru became the country with the highest per-capita death rate in the world at the time. Brazil has the second-highest total COVID-19 deaths in the world after the US. Multiple Latin American countries are today struggling with high per-capita COVID-19 cases, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.
Multiple factors are driving the COVID-19 surge in Latin America. The region has low vaccination rates, with little access to effective vaccines. While the current surge started in several countries around April, the region is now entering its winter season, which is likely to create conditions that are conducive to further spread. A major driver is the Brazilian variant known as P.1, or Gamma. It is more contagious than earlier COVID-19 strains and might have some ability to overcome antibodies. This variant appears to have spread widely in much of Latin America and is playing a key role in the recent surge.
Around the world, throughout the pandemic, the importance of good leadership has been clear, and some Latin American countries have lacked sound leadership and competent governance. As PAHO Director Carissa Etienne recently said: “Sadly, across our region, we’ve seen misinformation about COVID-19 sow doubt on proven health measures, often in the context of political disputes.”
Brazil is a particularly notable case. The virus has run strong in Brazil throughout the pandemic, while President Jair Bolsonaro has raised doubts about the seriousness of COVID-19, the value of wearing masks, and the effectiveness of vaccines. Despite contracting the virus himself, he has mocked those who have suffered from it and opposed mitigation measures. The lack of clear messaging and policymaking at the national level has hampered Brazil’s response from the beginning. Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s supporters have held large rallies, potentially exacerbating COVID-19 spread.
Even well-intentioned governments in Latin America have struggled to find a balance between mitigation efforts that are critical to slowing the virus and the need to continue running the economy. While wealthier countries have the ability to encourage many workers to telework and to provide aid to those who cannot, poorer countries have fewer resources to help provide for people during lockdowns and restrictions. There are important questions to ask about the efficacy of imposing significant restrictions on a population where many people must work in person every day in order to meet basic needs.
Variants can derail even well-implemented mitigation measures and can deepen a crisis where governments have failed to act.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Colombia attempted virus mitigation measures, but the badly damaged economy, which pushed many people deeper into poverty, prompted widespread demonstrations. So despite having one of the highest per-capita COVID-19 rates in the world today, Colombia is rolling back restrictions. Argentina is also facing high infection rates despite mitigation measures, raising questions about how well such restrictions can function in less-developed economies.
Many Latin American countries also lack the infrastructure to cope with COVID-19 infections and so face relatively high death rates. Limited access to healthcare and nearly overwhelmed ICUs are challenges in several Latin American countries.
While Latin America is the region most badly affected today, there are other hotspots. On the other side of the world, Mongolia is experiencing a surge, reaching its peak cases so far in the last week, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. While the government imposed strict measures that kept the virus out until November, its measures and messaging were often inconsistent. There were several cases of overzealous application of restrictions against innocent individuals, which sparked protests and a political crisis. Large political gatherings in March likely contributed to the virus’ spread. Mongolia has a relatively high vaccination rate, but it has largely relied on the Sinopharm vaccine, raising questions about its effectiveness.
While Latin America is currently the main hotspot for COVID-19, in the grand picture of total cases and deaths since the pandemic began, North America, Europe and India have had similarly high rates. Together, they suggest potential lessons for the future. Variants can derail even well-implemented mitigation measures and can deepen a crisis where governments have failed to act. Leadership matters in a pandemic; it is particularly important to accept the reality of the situation, implement appropriate public health measures, and ensure consistent messaging. Some political leaders are willing to downplay a pandemic and put people at risk in order to pursue their political interests. While mitigation measures are necessary, severe restrictions are difficult to sustain in societies where many people rely on daily work, often in the informal economy, to meet basic needs.
These are only a few of the many lessons that will come out of the pandemic.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch