Latin America crosses a bleak milestone

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As of Friday, the coronavirus-related death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean surpassed 1 million people, according to the U.N. Pan American Health Organization. Almost 90 percent of these deaths took place in five major countries in the region — Brazil (around 44 percent), Mexico (22 percent), Colombia (8 percent), Argentina (7 percent) and Peru (nearly 7 percent). In some of these countries, the official number of coronavirus deaths may be only a fraction of the real total. But the overall trend lines for Latin America have been grim, with its economies ravaged and a paltry number of vaccinations administered.

In the United States, reported coronavirus-related cases and deaths dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a year, while supply for vaccines now seems to outweigh demand, with tens of millions of Americans refusing to get vaccinated even as authorities woo them with promises of free alcohol or cash prizes.

Farther south, though, a third wave of the virus is surging. On average in May, Latin America accounted for more than 31 percent of all worldwide covid-19 deaths, though it has just a bit more than 8 percent of the world’s population. Though rates vary dramatically by nation — Uruguay and Chile have vaccinated significant proportions of their populations, for example — experts say only about 3 percent of the region’s population is fully vaccinated.

“More than one million lives have been cut short because of COVID-19. This is a tragic milestone for everyone in the region,” Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said in a statement.

“The progress we’re seeing in the U.S. is a testament to the power of safe and effective COVID vaccines, but it underscores the vital importance of accelerating access to vaccines throughout our region, so that other countries can fully immunize their populations,” she added. “We urgently need more vaccines for Latin America and the Caribbean, a region which has been sorely tested by this pandemic.”

Meanwhile, after more than a decade of steady growth, Latin America saw dramatic economic contraction over the past year. The region’s economy shrank an estimated 7.4 percent, the worst downturn since 1821, when South America was still plunged in its bloody wars of independence from Spain, according to the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual report published in March. More than 100 million children in Latin America may be unable to attend school. Food insecurity is on the rise. In Brazil, 19 million people, or about 1 in every 11 citizens, are going hungry, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“We are going to emerge from this crisis poorer, more indebted, and with economies that will look very different in terms of their productive structures,” wrote Eric Parrado, chief economist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

For now, governments are still wrestling with the viral menace in their midst. There’s no simple answer for what went wrong across the hemisphere. Both poorer and wealthier nations saw spikes in infections. Governments run by center-right technocrats, left-leaning populists and far-right firebrands all were accused of missteps and failures in arresting the virus’s spread. A year ago, tiny Uruguay was seen as a continental exception, a relatively wealthy and well-run nation that offered a model for navigating the pandemic. Now, it has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world.

There’s no end in sight for much of the region. In Colombia, weeks of anti-government protests have led officials in various cities to warn about a prolonged peak in coronavirus cases. In Peru, whose economy contracted by more than 11 percent in 2020, the pandemic has led to shortages in cemetery space in various parts of the country. In Brazil, home to the world’s second-largest official covid-19 death toll, polarizing President Jair Bolsonaro was fined last week by local authorities in Maranhao state for violating pandemic restrictions while appearing maskless at a political event.

As a whole, Latin America has been dogged by vaccine supply shortages and slow rollouts. Lacking the manufacturing capacities of major vaccine producers elsewhere, countries in the region were beholden to a global medical supply chain during the pandemic that saw the United States effectively ban the export of certain necessary raw materials and Russia so far deliver fewer of its Sputnik V doses than what it promised to various Latin American governments amid shortfalls of personnel and equipment.

The poorest countries lag furthest behind. “Vaccination rates in the region currently overlap fairly predictably with countries’ national income per capita,” noted Foreign Policy last week. “According to data compiled by Reuters, high-income Chile has given at least one shot to more than 49 percent of its population; upper-middle-income Argentina and Brazil have given more than 18 percent and 17 percent, respectively; and lower-middle-income Nicaragua and Honduras have given more than 2.5 percent and 1 percent, respectively.”

“Scientists and government officials say the pandemic seems to be abating — at least temporarily — because of increasing levels of immunity on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border,” wrote my colleague Mary Beth Sheridan last week. “As much as half the Mexican population has developed antibodies because the coronavirus circulated so widely over the past year. In addition, U.S. vaccinations appear to be blocking the southward spread of the virus.”

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