COVID-19 and Latin America: Snapshots of a Continent in Crisis
South of the US border, nations have struggled to cope with the consequences of the pandemic.
After President Joe Biden declared in August that he intended to push forward with a plan to provide third booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines to all adults in the U.S., there was strong pushback from the World Health Organization and other international authorities.
Given the limited global availability of such vaccines, these voices — including some Vatican officials — insisted that it is more equitable and more medically urgent to focus first on making more vaccines available to developing nations. That’s because in these countries vaccine distribution to date generally has lagged behind the rollout in wealthier nations, and because local medical systems are far less equipped to treat patients who are seriously ill with COVID.
One such area is Latin America, which has a predominantly Catholic population. There, the coronavirus pandemic has been a long nightmare for many people, bringing out political corruption in some places while also bringing out the best in humanity in others.
Here is a snapshot of what COVID has looked like south of our border:
During the past year, Argentina endured a 150-day lockdown, one of the strictest in the world. At times, exercise and even dog-walking were not allowed.
Sara Diaz, a medical student (now doctor), experienced the pandemic first-hand — when she volunteered for 10-weeks to work in a COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit in Buenos Aires.
“I saw the good in people in the middle of a very sad situation,” said Diaz.
She recalls one moment when the head of the ICU department came down with COVID, which he had caught from his own 16-year-old son, who had to be intubated.
“At one point, the five of us who were working in the ICU, just felt defeated. Then we sat down together in the middle of the night, and one of the female residents said, ‘As long as we stay together and look out for each other, we are still human.’ I realized she was right and that we still had a chance to beat COVID if we worked together.”
The ICU chief and his son were both able to recover from COVID.
According to recent Johns Hopkins University statistics, Argentina has had 5.2 million cases of COVID, with 115,130 deaths out of a total population of 44.9 million. 48.6% of the population has been vaccinated — though many in the country are skeptical of the official statistics because they say the government has sometimes manipulated numbers to make itself look good.
Diaz was able to get her first vaccine of AstraZeneca in June of this year but was never able to get the second dose because of vaccine shortages. She ended up getting two doses of Pfizer in New York.
She recalls a scandal that came out when it was discovered that Argentine politicians were getting vaccinated first and having their family members vaccinated — before even health care workers got the vaccine. President Alberto Fernandez also threw a party for his girlfriend in July in his official residence, while the country was in strict lockdown.
Another major problem has been the economy.
“It was bad before the pandemic. Now it is even worse,” she said.
When Diaz finished her medical degree this past year, her goal was to fly to New York to take her Board exams in July.
“A few days before my flight, I discovered that my flight had been canceled,” she said.
On June 28, President Fernandez announced that the country would only be accepting 600 people per day into the international airport — thus stranding thousands of Argentinians around the world, and within the country.
“I had to take a 20-hour bus ride to Paraguay, then wait for 10 hours at a friend’s house. Then, I took a 2am flight to Panama, waited there for four hours, and then flew to New York. I arrived on July 5th,” said Diaz.
She passed her boards and is now waiting to hear about which residency program she gets into in the U.S. Meanwhile, Diaz looks back at the situation she left behind in Argentina.
“It’s a very delicate situation,” she said.
As of Oct. 7, there were 1,086 new cases recorded. Masks are no longer mandated outdoors, and soccer matches will return in October at 50% capacity in stadiums.
At the height of Chile’s lockdown, wild pumas were seen roaming the streets of Santiago — something that had not been seen since colonial times. But now, the country is almost back to normal.
According to Johns Hopkins, Chile had a total of 1.6 million cases of COVID, with 37,455 deaths out of a population of 18.95 million. 74.5% of the population has been vaccinated (Reuters reports 82.2%), one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. This week, the government began vaccinating children ages 6 to 11. Curfews, which had been from midnight to 5am, were eliminated on Thursday.
“Right now, we have what is called the ‘Pass for Mobility,’ which is like a vaccine passport,” said Dr. Andres Lanas, an ear, nose and throat specialist who worked in the Clinica Las Condes Hospital in Santiago during the pandemic. “Though this pass is not mandatory, it is coercive, because you need it for just about everything. Even in the north of Chile, miners cannot work in the mines without it.”
Though Chileans privately express apprehension about getting the vaccine, there are few people who are actively protesting against them.
At the height of the pandemic, Chile saw a shortage of doctors by 25% because many elderly doctors, or those who were immuno-compromised, had to leave the workplace.
“So, we younger doctors had to step in and do everything,” said Dr. Lanas.
This put tremendous stress on Chilean health care workers, who were already exhausted.
“But the best think that came out of this was that it produced a beautiful symbiosis — whereby doctors who had never worked together, because they were from different departments, found themselves working side-by-side. The only thing that mattered was working together to get through the crisis,” he said.
The Chilean government covered all health care costs for COVID patients, so the poor were given equal treatment to the wealthy. Everything was paid for by the Ministry of Health. Private clinics found themselves taking in the poor, something which does not normally happen in Chile.
“No one was rejected,” said Dr. Lanas.
For Bolivia, the COVID pandemic has been the worst healthcare crisis in the nation’s history.
When Dr. Anibal Cruz, who was the Minister of Health for Bolivia for the first part of the pandemic, began to look at the statistics coming out of China in December 2019, he feared the worst.
“I realized that we did not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with this pandemic, nor the laboratories, if it came to Bolivia,” said Dr. Cruz.
He crunched the numbers and gave a presentation in February 2020 to the World Health Organization in Geneva, where he forecast that Bolivia would need $10 million to fight COVID.
(The reality would be orders of magnitude worse. Bolivia would end up receiving $327 million from the International Monetary Fund to combat COVID in April 2020.)
By mid-March 2020, the first two cases appeared in Bolivia, from two women who had traveled to Italy.
“We immediately took the radical decision to close our borders and encapsulate our cities. People were closed within their own homes,” he said.
Though his government was criticized at the time, Dr. Cruz believes it was the right decision.
Bolivia has endured three waves of the pandemic. They have had 500,090 cases and 18,726 deaths. 28.3% of the population has been vaccinated out of a total population of 11.51 million.
“We are now at a plateau of cases, though just last week, I was looking at the numbers and I am scared. I am seeing an increase of cases by 10%,” he said. “By November we could be in the middle of a 4th wave.”
Because Bolivia is one of the poorest nations in Latin America, it cannot take a hard-line approach anymore towards lockdowns. According to Cruz, 65% of the population works in the informal economy as day laborers. If they do not work every day, they starve.
“The worst moment came back in May of this year. We were in the middle of the third wave. The problem was that we did not have enough oxygen for COVID patients. We don’t have the factories to produce them and rely on Brazil and Chile to sell them to us. But the problem was that these two countries needed oxygen too, for their own COVID cases,” he said.
“You can imagine what is was like, to be in front of a hospital, with alarm bells are going off. People needed oxygen, and we didn’t have enough. There were doctors pumping oxygen manually for hours for patients who needed it. We had to take the difficult decision to reduce oxygen levels, because we simply didn’t have enough.”
There were moments when there was not enough space to bury the dead, and incinerators had waiting lists of one week to burn cadavers. Sometimes, there were dead people in the streets.
“But I want to make a homage to our doctors and nurses. They were angels in white who confronted COVID, sometimes without adequate protection. Any success we have had was because of these doctors who fought COVID without thinking of themselves.”
Dr. Cruz is a practicing Catholic who prays for God to be with country.
“I pray that God continues to be with Bolivia,” he said. Tell your readers to pray for us.”