- By Emily Gregg, with additional material from Peru & Haiti Support Groups UK and LAB correspondents in the region
- LAB has put together this fifth overview of the spread of coronavirus across the region and the reaction of governments, politicians and local communities. 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 94 on Thursday 23 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.
This week, the poor have become the main focus of the impact of Coronavirus, with many across the region facing starvation as they are unable to work and remain outside of state security nets. Local gangs and the military have handed out aid parcels to the poorest. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro continues to come under fire as he sacked his health minister and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega reappeared after being absent for over a month.
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Having been publicly criticised by him last week on national television for flouting social distancing recommendations and confusing Brazilians, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Mandetta left with grace, tweeting:
“I would like to say thank you for the opportunity that was given to me, to manage our health service … and to plan our fight against the coronavirus epidemic, this great challenge that our health system is about to face.”
But the dismissal provoked outcry in the abandoned streets of Rio de Janeiro where there were shouts of “Bolsonaro murderer!” as well as pot-banging protests across Brazil. Bolsonaro claimed Mandetta’s departure was “a consensual divorce”.
What is clear is that the separation was due to a profound difference in outlook. Upon his departure, Mandetta instructed his former staff to uphold “unyielding defence of life and science.” Bolsonaro, on the other hand, said, “I know … life is priceless. But the economy and jobs must return to normal.”
Bolsonaro has defended his stance by claiming he is protecting the poor. He said, “We cannot harm the neediest – they have no way of staying at home for very long without going out to seek their sustenance.”
Former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva disputed the claim in an interview with the Guardian. He said, “Bolsonaro is only interested in himself, his kids, some pretty conservative generals and his paramilitary friends,” referring to Bolsonaro’s alleged links to the Rio de Janeiro mafia.
Mandetta’s replacement, Nelson Teich, appears to be more in-line with Bolsonaro’s thinking. An oncologist, former CEO of a group of private clinics, and partner in a medical consulting firm, he is prioritising reopening the country. He has pledged to buy 46 million testing kits that will provide a representation of the state of Coronavirus in Brazil, although the efficacy of the kits and the logistics of testing and collating results remain uncertain. The data will be used to revise social distancing measures.
Meanwhile Congress has ordered Bolsonaro to release the results of his own Covid-19 test within 30 days. After a trip to the US in March, 23 members of Bolsonaro’s entourage tested positive for the virus. It was initially announced that the president had himself tested positive but his son later denied the claim on television. The President has until now refused to share the results of the two tests he took and has denied a freedom of information request for the information.
Bolsonaro claimed in March that he “wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold” due to his athletic background. However, he has been widely criticised for going out onto the streets and greeting, hugging, and taking photos with fans after being seen to cough. On Sunday 19 April, he attended a rally in Brasilia where supporters ignored all quarantine rules and called for a return to military dictatorship. Bolsonaro persistently coughed during a speech. Responding to questions about mass burials of virus victims, Bolsonaro retorted ‘I am not a grave-digger’. LAB correspondent Jan Rocha reported on these latest developments.
You will find many more articles on the Covid-19 crisis on our website. Go to our Home Page to see the latest, or for a full list, go to the News page. You can also keep up-to-date by subscribing to our (free) monthly e-mail newsletter.
Across much of Latin America rates of violence have fallen during the Pandemic. However, March was Mexico’s most violent month since the Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) became president. That month alone saw 2585 registered murders as rival gangs’ feuds continued. Yet those gangs have taken state-like responsibility for local citizens. One group, Los Viagras from Apatzingán, are reported to be asking for ‘contributions’ from local businesses to finance the aid packages it is redistributing. Meanwhile a rival group “instructed” the municipal government to create a food bank by which they would distribute aid. Alejandrina Guzmán, a daughter of the jailed notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán – ‘El Chapo’ – has distributed “Chapo Packages” of basic foods and hygiene products on behalf of her legally managed clothing company that bears her father’s image.
But fear of ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ overhangs the communities. One local in Michoacán said, “It isn’t like any of them are good people… But the truth is we can’t expect much from anybody else. At least we know [the local armed group], so they are in some way the least bad solution.”
As the gangs deepen their power and control, threatening AMLO’s anti-crime strategy, the president made a statement in which he asked gang members to leave behind their delinquency rather than give out aid.
Last Thursday, Colombians from across Bogotá staged a protest by burning tyres and blocking roads to demand aid to enable them survive the quarantine. The quarantine has forced thousands to abandon their jobs, many of which were in the informal sector where workers have few rights or protections.
The day after the protests, military personnel handed out over 300 boxes of basic goods and sanitary items in the Egipto neighbourhood of the capital. In total the military has distributed over 7000 similar boxes, while the Red Cross has distributed some 7500 more. But while the Government had put aside some COL $18 billion (around US $4,430.5 million) for health and humanitarian assistance, many have said they have not received anything.
The Chilean government announced on Monday 20 April a new plan to provide emergency monetary assistance to the poorest 60 percent of families who rely on informal work. The details of the measure are somewhat vague. The assistance will be available for up to three months and the amount will depend on the size of the family and their economic situation.
The same day, demonstrators gathered in the capital’s Plaza Italia, now informally re-named Plaza de la Dignidad, to continue protests against the Government and inequality that have taken over the country since October last year. Fourteen were arrested for breaking restrictions on mass congregations although the number of those who attended is unknown.
Meanwhile, the government has been implementing a programme of rolling lock-downs, with areas (or in the cities, speficic neighbourhoods) rated by a formula including the number of new cases, size of elderly population and access to healthcare. Next week it is due to start issuing immunity passes, allowing those who have had the virus and recovered to return to work. There is talk of reopening some shopping centres. Chile has succeeded in testing a higher pecentage of its population for Covid-19 than most other Latin American countries. Time will tell whether this strategy (somewhat similar to that of S.Korea) will be successful.
Parts of the world believed to have passed the peak of the Coronavirus curve are beginning slowly to re-open. Haiti, which has 58 reported cases, has reopened textile factories. Many of the factories’ workers were left without pay after the factories shut down on 19 March to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. The Solidarity Center and various garment sector unions have appealed to the government to provide the pay that Haitian Labour Code guarantees in the case of the government closing the workplace. Yet the workers have not received the money. For many, both in the textile sector and elsewhere, “The question was whether to die of hunger or Coronavirus” as George Sassine, head of the Industrial Association of Haiti, said. On 28 March, the Government gave permission for factories that produce medical scrubs, masks, and equipment for export to reopen.
Reopening these factories is especially risky given the already concerning position of Haitian health and welfare infrastructures. Official figures suggest the country has only 124 ICU beds for the country’s 11 million population – already well below WHO recommendations of 1 ICU unit per 10,000 people – and 68 ventilators. One respiratory therapist in Port-au-Prince believes the actual number of ventilators could be closer to 40, around half of which may not work.
Grassroots organisations assume the burden of responsibility for providing basic services to communities, while battling profound the hostility to NGOs which is the legacy of the country’s grim experiences in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Community leaders have been included in the projects. The environmentalist group Ekoloji pou Ayiti, has prepared water containers for handwashing stations. They are also carrying out an education campaign to teach people the importance of wearing facemasks, avoiding handshakes, and disinfecting clothes and how to make hand sanitiser from vinegar.
While Peru faces its own struggles in providing food and basics to its poor population, it has pledged this week to hand out 940,000 tablet computers to students and teachers in the poorest rural areas to allow them to access home schooling during quarantine. The tablets will have internet access and solar-panel chargers. The Government had suggested that normal classes would restart in May although there is no definite date set.
While the already underfunded health system struggles to cope with Coronavirus, those with long term illnesses are struggling to get necessary treatment due to a lack of medical supplies and treatment. Cristina Freire, spokesperson for Dialysis Centres, said that 100 have died over the past three weeks for the same reasons. The medical director of an oncology hospital in Guayaquil reported that chemotherapy and radiation treatments had been suspended for three weeks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The Minister of the Interior claims there are plans in place to deliver medication to the patients’ homes and to treat the most severe cases in private hospitals. However, the outstanding debt the government owes to private clinics and the higher price that private buyers have to pay for oxygen tanks and medication proves to be a fatal stumbling block in achieving this.
Migrants deported from the US have raised serious concerns of being put on planes with other repatriated Guatemalans who have tested positive for Coronavirus. On a recent flight, 12 passengers selected randomly to undergo a test by US officials showed positive results. Those passengers were hospitalised upon arriving in their home country but the others are detained in quarantine in a converted sports centre in the capital. It is not known how many other passengers were carrying the virus or were infected during the flight. Furthermore, those interned in the centre complain that the facility is not complying with social distancing recommendations, with dormitories consisting of 20 beds which are only 1 metre apart. Temperature tests are regularly taken but no swab test has been carried out on the interns.
Due to reports of mass infection, deportation flights were temporarily suspended last Thursday and Guatemala’s president has insisted that only ‘healthy’ Guatemalans be returned.
While many seek to complete their two-week quarantine at home, believing there is less chance of contamination there, others are afraid of the reaction of their community. Communities fear they will bring the virus back with them, some councils have prohibited their return home and others have threatened to expel families from their hometowns.
Nicaragua’s President, Daniel Ortega, who had not been seen since an international conference call on 12 March, appeared last Wednesday (15 March) on television. His absence had raised suspicions of his whereabouts that varied from self-isolation to being sick or even dead. In his address, the president claimed the virus was ‘a sign from god’ against militarism and hegemony: to show how transnational forces wanted to take over the world but that the United States “isn’t able to provide for its own citizens”.
Despite having suppressed social protest since the 2018 anti-government demonstrations, Ortega refuses to implement social distancing measures and instead has encouraged mass gatherings around the Easter holiday, risking mass exposure and putting Nicaraguans’ lives at risk.
Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 94, 23 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).