- By Emily Gregg, with additional material from Peru & Haiti Support Groups UK and LAB correspondents in the region
- LAB has put together this fourth overview of the spread of coronavirus across the region and the reaction of governments and politicians. With our limited resources we could not hope to provide a truly comprehensive survey.
- Figures for infections and mortality, summarised in the table at the end, are those given by the World Health Organisation Situation Report 86 on Wednesday 15 April. Where figures appear in the images within the article, they may refer to earlier dates.
- LAB will attempt to follow up this story, focusing on the poor, marginal communities, indigenous groups and inequalities in treatment and economic compensation for the effects of this terrible pandemic on individuals and families.
- See LAB articles at the head of our Home Page and in the Covid-19 section for further news, testimony & information. See also the posts on our Facebook page.
As much of Latin America enters the fourth week of lockdown, the effects on the more vulnerable in society, particularly the poor, women and indigenous communities, are becoming urgent. Political leaders continue to be criticised for inadequate measures, for being too present as in the case of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, or for disappearing, as suspicions rise about the whereabouts of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega.
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Doctors and experts from across the region share concerns that official figures significantly underestimate the reality. The head of internal medicine at the ABC Hospital in Mexico City describes the situation as “walking blindly through the woods” because of the inaccurate data. The Brazilian Health Ministry has admitted that it cannot be sure of the number of tests that have been conducted and that many of the antibody tests being distributed are not accurate. The Health Secretary for Rio de Janeiro state estimates that there could be 50 to 100 more cases for each of the 1,074 reported. In Venezuela, tests are only available to those who have travelled abroad or who have been in contact with an infected person.
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Colombia, Peru, and Chile are believed to be handling things better. Yet while Chile has the highest testing rate in the region (2,200 per million), there are suspicions that the Government is not being transparent with the data as reporting methods change day to day. On Monday, Health Secretary Jaime Mañalich announced that Chile includes those who have died from the virus in the number of those recovered, since they are no longer contagious.
Figures for reported cases in Peru seem to show that in Lima, the worst affected area of the country, there are more cases of infrection in middle- and upper-class districts. However, there are concerns that these figures under-report the impact in poorer neighbourhoods due to the limited availability of testing.
Emergency aid not reaching those in need
As we have reported in previous updates, the poor are likely to suffer disproportionately from Covid-19 due to overcrowding, poor sanitation, and their informal work that leaves them unprotected by any kind of state benefits. After a month of quarantine, in some places their situation has become desperate.
In Colombia, residents in the La María neighbourhood have been hanging red cloths outside of their windows to signify that they need help. Neighbours share anything they have left over. Many of these residents work in the informal sector – recyclers, street sellers, informal construction workers – and so do not appear in government databases. While the Government pledged that no one would go hungry during the quarantine, many of the poorest families have not received the promised help.
Paraguay has one of the lowest infection rates in South America as a result of imposing severe measures early on. However, the lack of accompanying measures to counter the loss of income for the 65 percent of the population that work in the informal sector has left many without access to economic support. An independent website, AyudaPy, in which users can seek or offer help, has been created to help those in need. It has been inundated with requests for basic necessities including milk, bread, and medicine.
Likewise, emergency aid and information on how to receive it is reported to not be reaching Brazil’s vulnerable as Rio’s favelas reported their first deaths this week, a total of six in four different communities. A programme of relocation has been enforced in the capital’s favelas for the elderly and most at-risk residents, which would accommodate them in hotels in the city. However, a lack of support has meant that only 20 of the 1000 available places have been filled. An app, website and telephone line were established last week to register those eligible to receive up to R$1200 with 10 million registrations on its first day. The first payments went out last Thursday.
Brazil also reported the first death amongst its indigenous communities outside of urban areas due to Covid-19. Alvanei Xirixana, aged just 15 and a member of the Rehebe tribe in the Uraricoera river near the Venezuelan border, passed away last Thursday after a period in intensive care. Four members of the Kokama tribe in Amazonas have also tested positive for Covid-19 after a medic who worked with them carried the virus.
Brazil’s health minister has said the government plans to build a field hospital for vulnerable tribes, of whom many lack immunity to diseases common outside their territories and whom the virus threatens to wipe out. Measures have also been enforced forbidding any non-indigenous people entering indigenous territory, and to ensure that the communities will receive masks, gloves, testing kits, and food supplies.
Indigenous communities in Loreto, Peru, who completely shut themselves off four weeks ago because of the threat to their society, are reported to be rapidly running out of basic supplies. They are forced to live only off their banana and yuca crops, as they are unable to leave to buy foodstuffs such as sugar, rice, and beans that they do not grow. Likewise, they have run out of soap to clean and wash their hands, which is now more important than ever. The Loreto region has the second-highest number of cases in Peru.
Meanwhile, Amazonian indigenous leaders and the Working Group for Indigenous Peoples of the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDH) have demanded that the Peruvian Ministry of Culture provide support for indigenous communities such as in Loreto. The leaders’ demands include assistance in controlling entry and exit of the territories during the epidemic; monetary assistance; health protocols and medical assistance; allowing indigenous children to complete the school year; and the creation of a ministry for indigenous peoples. The CNDH group have proposed an intercultural provision of services that involves representatives and leaders of indigenous communities; guaranteed access to quality water; and guaranteed food security through the S/.380 subsidy demanded by the indigenous leaders.
Across the world, reports of domestic abuse have increased due to lockdowns. In Latin America, home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates, the increase has been manifest in the statistics. A government telephone line for domestic abuse victims in Colombia saw four times the usual rate of phone calls in the first weekend of quarantine. One women’s refuge in Mexico reported that it had to turn women away as it reached capacity. In Brazil, the government domestic abuse hotline, Liga 180, reported an 18% increase at the end of March compared to the beginning of the month.
In some cases, numbers of reports have decreased. One refuge in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, for example has fewer residents than normal. However, it is believed that this is not due to a reduction in abuse, but rather due to fewer opportunities to seek help or escape, with victims being trapped indoors with a controlling partner.
Chilean, Argentinian and Colombian governments have opened new channels, including WhatsApp, to combat the issue during the pandemic and will keep refuges and family courts running. However some refuges, such as those in Mexico, struggle to provide essential services and protective supplies after funding cuts and delays.
Sex workers in Mexico City have also been forced out on to the streets as the hotels where they live are considered ‘non-essential’ and are closed down. They now live in makeshift tents grouped together for safety, and rely on donations of food from social workers. A spokesperson for the city’s government explained that the government spoke to hoteliers, asking them to evict the sex workers staying in their hotel so that they would not be able to carry out their work during the health crisis. The government claims to be preparing refuges for them and giving them emergency cards with MX $1000 (around US $42) credit, an amount that is insufficient to live off.
Traditional gender roles in Peru sabotaged government restrictions, forcing them to be cancelled. The regulation allowed women to go out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and men on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, to buy supplies and medicines or to go to the bank. However, overcrowding in markets on women’s days undermined the intention of regulation, leading to its cancellation on Friday. Peru’s LGBT community had also protested the measure, complaining of abuse and homophobia from the police and army personnel enforcing the quarantine.
As in many countries in the region, Peru’s prison system is vastly overcrowded, with twice as many inmates as its capacity, accompanied by poor infrastructure, sanitation and healthcare. The head of the National Prisons Council last week announced in a letter to the president of the judiciary that no more people will be taken into custody during the emergency. Previously, those who did not comply with the curfew and restrictions in force were threatened with jail and many were arrested.
Nonetheless, the Peruvian Government also announced that those who create or spread fake news could face up to six years in prison.
Overcrowding in Chile’s prisons led to the Ministry of Justice to propose the release of 1,300 low-risk prisoners, who would serve the remainder of their sentences under house arrest, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within the prisons. The measure would apply to people convicted of lesser crimes who are elderly, pregnant, have children younger than two years of age, or are terminally ill and who have already served at least half of their sentences.
However, 14 government senators suggested that human rights abusers from the Pinochet dictatorship should also be inlcuded under the measure, despite being interned at the reportedly very spacious and comfortable Punta Peuco prison. The suggestion has caused a split in the ruling Vamos coalition and fierce criticism from the opposition. A spokeswoman for the Association for the Families of Disappeared Detainees described the move as “unethical and opportunistic”. A constitutional tribunal will rule on the matter on Monday.
Bolivians denied entry to Bolivia
Both the Chilean and the Bolivian Governments have come under fire this week for abandoning some 500 Bolivians trapped on the Chilean side of the border and denied entry into their own country. The group, currently living in makeshift tents in temperatures that can drop to -4°, in the village of Colchane, include minors, pregnant women, and elderly people. The town has provided drinking water and a portable toilet but with the nearest supermarket 160km away, food is scarce.
It is not that the border is closed – Bolivians can fly home from Santiago. The Bolivian Government is denying these migrants entry on the claim that they are politically motivated and supporters of ousted ex-President Evo Morales, seeking to cause trouble. When the trapped migrants attempted to enter by force the Bolivian army forced them back with violence, including beatings to the head.
A too visible president, and an invisible one
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, aged 74, has notoriously denied the existence of Covid-19 and has controversially ordered the country to carry on as normal. However, he has not been seen since an international conference call on 12 March. His invisibility has caused anger, fear and speculation as to his whereabouts. Some think he is self-isolating, others that he is hospitalised, and others still that he is dead. One prominent opponent called for him to make an appearance by last Thursday, but the president is yet to be seen.
At the other end of the spectrum, Brazil’s Bolsonaro once again flouted social distancing recommendations this week, visiting a supermarket and a bakery in Brasília where he hugged fans. Yet it served only to further isolate the president. Brazilian Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, publicly defied Bolsonaro in a television interview on Sunday night, on Brazil’s most-watched television network. Mandetta argued that Bolsonaro’s actions were confusing Brazilians. Medical experts have also criticised the presidents actions, describing them as “dangerous”, “childish” and “surreal” and fearing they will lead the country to a devasting crisis.
Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 86, 15 April 2020. Reports from some individual governments and unofficial sources suggest considerably higher figures.
Emily Gregg is a LAB correspondent and author. She lived in Arica, Chile, until returning to the UK because of the pandemic, and wrote The Student Revolution chapter in LAB’s book Voices of Latin America (2019).