TO concise report presented from São Paulo, Brazil, showed up in the March 17, 1919, edition of the New York Times. It said: “The flu has reappeared here in an epidemic form. The government is taking measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Just over a hundred years later, faced with another pandemic, the Brazilian government has taken a different approach. President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right extremist elected in 2018, has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus, urging citizens to hang on and get back to work so the economy can get moving again.
The president has frequently appeared in public places without a mask, stopping to greet supporters, creating potential wide-spread events as a matter of course. Bolsonaro’s recklessness has had dire consequences: Latin America’s largest nation has been devastated by the pandemic, with more than 13 million boxes.
But Brazil is not alone. The World Bank has identified Latin America as the region most affected by the pandemic. The Financial Times’ Check in of excess deaths places Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Mexico in the lead. The Lancet has identified it as having “Some of the Highest Covid-19 Death Rates in the World.” A Covid-19 projection model from the University of Washington predicted deaths in the region could exceed a million before June 25.
Governments of different ideological shades have been seriously affected. Under conservative businessman Sebastián Piñera, chili is experiencing an alarming increase in cases despite running one of the most efficient vaccination campaigns in the world. Under the moderate leftist Alberto Fernández, Argentina it has fought to advance against the virus, even as it adopted an aggressive lockdown and other prescribed containment measures. Indeed, the country’s misfortune is such that Fernández received his second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in February, but nevertheless it tested positive for the virus for the second time this month.
This is not easily explained. One factor to consider, however, is the lack of regional coordination like the one that existed during the years of the so-called “pink tide”. Beginning in the late 1990s, decidedly leftist, but not communist, governments emerged throughout Latin America. Taking advantage of this regional ideological alignment, 12 countries throughout Latin America, under the leadership of Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, created the Union of South American Nations (Unasur). The objective of this body was to promote regional integration and policy coordination. The first two councils created under the auspices of UNASUR were related to the areas of defense and health.
This South American Health Council was immediately put to the test by the 2009 swine flu pandemic. When the first cases of the new H1N1 flu were detected in Argentina and Chile (later it was found that the flu arose in Mexico), other countries were quickly alerted and a large-scale operation was set up at airports and border checkpoints to stop the spread of the disease. A series of measures were put in place to make diagnostic and therapeutic resources available to all countries in the region, and a common strategy was developed to obtain the specific influenza vaccine as soon as it was available.
The spirit of regional coordination in Latin America is gone; the website of the South American Health Council seems almost abandoned. To the extent that there has been some supranational coordination, it has been carried out by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is part of the United Nations system. PAHO has helped the countries plan vaccination campaigns and has advised on joint procurement and distribution processes. But ultimately it is limited in scope. You can strongly recommend social distancing and mask mandates, for example, but you cannot impose such measures.
When a new, more transmissible variant of the virus was detected in Brazil in March, the World Health Organization, of which PAHO is a part, expressed concern that neighboring countries could be affected unless Brazil took aggressive health measures. It was not so. Soon, PAHO noticed an increase in infections in Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile. The picture that emerges is sisyphus, with hard-fought progress quickly undermined or nullified by a cunning virus and inconsistent politics.
The pandemic has been especially damaging in Latin America in large part because there is no agreement on what it is or who is to blame. The failure of different approaches in the region to defeat the virus compounds the problem, providing talking points for those who are inclined to deny the severity of the pandemic to postpone further action. For much of the past year, some might look to Latin America and plausibly wonder why Argentina, which introduced protracted and draconian blockades, it had some of the highest per capita death rates. You might ask, if the blockades are an inadvisable excess, why is the Brazilian public health system in the at the edge of collapse.
In the midst of this daunting regional anomie, it is no wonder that former President Lula, back in the fray after recovering their political rights last month, he’s asking for more coordination. “The United Nations should have already convened an extraordinary general assembly, a virtual assembly, to discuss Covid 19,” he said in a recent interview, adding that “rulers do not act as rulers … Everyone thinks of themselves.” One imagines that the relative closeness of the “pink tide” governments a decade and a half ago would have allowed for more effective coordination across borders, which, in turn, could have saved lives by pooling resources and technical expertise. Today, however, Latin America is polarized and rudderless. Countries have done it alone, with tragic results.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism