Latin America is the new COVID-19 epicentre

A woman with a face mask walks on a street in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 04 June 2020. Brazil is close to overtaking Italy and becoming the third country in the world with the most deaths from COVID-19 after reaching more than 32,500 deceases to date, at a time when several states in the country have begun their de-escalation despite the still growing trend of the pandemic. [EPA-EFE/Sebastiao Moreira]

Latin America has become the new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in recent weeks with more than a million cases. The next month will be crucial in slowing the progress of the outbreak in the region, according to Marcos Espinal, an expert at the Pan American Health Organisation.

Espinal, director of PAHO’s department of communicable diseases, told Efe that June will be a “critical month” during which countries that implemented mitigation measures early “will be able to manage a little better the overload of cases in their health systems”.

He warned that some counties, such as Brazil, Chile and Mexico, are experiencing daily infection increases of up to four or five percent, and others such as Bolivia and Venezuela are also seeing a rise in new cases.

Brazil is the second-worst affected country in the world with almost 700,000 infections and 37,000 deaths. Elsewhere in the region, Peru has reported almost 200,000 infections, Chile 134,000 and Mexico nearly 120,000

Espinal warned that the situation was “still very delicate” and has been complicated by economic problems of the region.

Latin America has large pockets of poverty and a high proportion of informal workers without health coverage or any means of surviving in lockdown, which has pushed some countries to consider de-escalation before they have reduced their contagion rates.

Despite recommendations from PAHO that it is not yet time to reopen, “each country is sovereign”, Espinal said.

He added that the organisation understands “that many people without permanent work have to look for the support of their families”.

The expert urged countries to reopen in a “gradual and analytical” way and encouraged each nation to decide on responsible economic and financial measures, along with public health authorities and community representatives.

Espinal said Latin American countries have had more time than Europe to implement prevention measures such as social distancing and awareness campaigns but warned that many of their health services are not sufficiently financed for this kind of emergency.

“PAHO recommends that countries invest at least six percent of gross domestic product in public health but most of them do not reach that figure,” he added.

He said he hopes the pandemic will help governments in the area to become more aware of the need of a properly funded health service.

“The investment must be in quantity and quality for years because it is not only about dealing with COVID but also other diseases that are going to come in a region where we already had Zika or H1N1 flu,” he cautioned.

PAHO and WHO have expressed concerns about Haiti, which has one of the weakest health systems in the region, and Nicaragua. Espinal said Nicaragua was “de facto trying to adopt group immunity” that has already been tried and failed in European countries like Sweden and the United Kingdom.

He added that some Latin American governments had taken preventive measures relatively early, such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and highlighted the “excellent testing program” of nations such as Chile and Uruguay, which have carried out 30,000 and 14,000 tests per million inhabitants, respectively.

Venezuela has surprisingly been one of the least affected countries in the region so far, with only 2,300 confirmed cases, despite the nation’s serious economic difficulties which have affected its hospitals and health service.

“It is a country to which there were very few flights even before the arrival of COVID,” Espinal explained.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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