Chaos Country: Pandemic Responses in South America

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissive response to the coronavirus has generated political backlash.

As North America struggles to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19, its counterparts in the South fare no better. On April 3, a Washington Post story reported a sickening reality: diseased victims of the coronavirus littering the streets of Ecuador as the country’s government and an overwhelmed hospital system scrambled to coordinate a response it was ill-prepared to execute. Beyond Ecuador, chaos reigns through the rest of South America; mounting death tolls and ever-grim projections only hint at the desperation that has overtaken the continent.

Of all South American countries, Brazil’s pandemic response has proven most controversial. The hardest-hit of South American countries, the nation’s pandemic response has forced it into a medical and political nightmare. According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, as of April 12, the country’s over 22,000 cases account for nearly 45% of all cases in South America. Internationally, Brazil maintains that ventilator shortages have exacerbated its lagging response to the pandemic, a shortage that has forced the country to request the bulk purchase of medical equipment from China. Yet, its inadequate response is also marred by political irresponsibility. Although more than 1200 people have already died since the country’s first case in February, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to dismiss the virus, calling it a “little flu” as recently as March 30. While Brazilian ministers, congressional leaders, and governors have opposed Bolsonaro in his inadequate response to the virus, the Brazilian president is not alone in his political folly. On April 6, Brazilian Education Minister Abraham Weintrab called the pandemic a Chinese “plan for world domination” in a tweet that referred to his country as “BLazil,” mocking the Chinese accent. Amidst Brazil’s struggling pandemic response, the country’s brash, dismissive leadership has reared its ugly face.

Chile, whose infection numbers rank second among South American countries, has also posted a muted response. While April 8th saw governmental mandates requiring protective face wear on all public and private transportation, the country has yet to implement a national quarantine, a measure taken by most of its South American counterparts. Only senior nursing facilities and six municipalities in Santiago, the country’s capital city, have been issued quarantines to date. Outside of such limited measures, a national curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. is the country’s chief effort to quell civilian interaction. Though this curfew has been in effect since March 22, it has produced no noticeable mitigation of infection numbers—as of April 8, the country has recorded over 5,500 cases, more than a thousand more than any South American nation outside Brazil. 

Lower infection rates, however, do not exempt nations from pandemic-related troubles. Despite posting comparatively optimistic numbers—just over 100 infections and 5 deaths to date—Paraguay has seen its own share of political controversy. On April 1, Senator María Bajac attended a legislative session after testing positive for the virus, triggering a suspension of Congress until April 13 at a time when legislation remains critical to executing an adequate response. Just days later, Congressman Edgar Oritz was indicted for attempting to travel between cities, a violation of the national quarantine in effect until mid-April. More than punishments for moral irresponsibility, their indictments are stark reminders of the intrusive limitations required of an adequate pandemic response.

Perhaps most saddening, however, is an unglamorous truth: the pandemic has left some South American countries scrambling to tackle the destruction wrought by the virus. Overwhelmed with the sick, health and security forces in Guayaquil, Ecuador have failed to collect the bodies of those taken by the virus. The result is a chilling scene: corpses in the streets deposited haphazardly with little more than a plastic sheet covering them—painfully visible reminders of an invisible enemy.

Across the rest of South America, coronavirus responses remain extensive in an effort to avoid the breaking point experienced by the likes of Guayaquil. A flurry of closed borders and travel restrictions starting in mid-March has ground non-essential travel to a halt. Almost all countries have imposed mandatory quarantines until mid-April, and some have closed educational institutions indefinitely. Despite this, daily death tolls continue to climb by the thousands.

Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. With rhetoric ranging from “State of Exception” to “State of Catastrophe,” countries across South America have prepared to hunker down for worsening numbers and declining national morale alike. The continent, like the rest of the world, is far from containing the pandemic that has quickly evolved into the disaster of a generation.

Photo from Shutterstock.