Covid-19: Latin America endures another wave

Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia among countries reporting increases in new infections

Elderly citizens wait for their turn to get a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a centre in Lima this week. Photogrph: Getty

Elderly citizens wait for their turn to get a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a centre in Lima this week. Photogrph: Getty

 

Suffering from a lack of access to vaccines, Latin America is experiencing another surge in coronavirus cases across a region already the hardest hit by the global pandemic.

Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are among the countries reporting increases in new infections which are also rising right across central America and in the Caribbean. On Thursday Brazil, the region’s most populous nation which has suffered more fatalities from Covid-19 than any country bar the United States, saw its death toll pass 400,000, having registered more than 100,000 deaths since March 24th.

According to the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), one in four deaths from the virus globally are being registered in the region, which is home to less than 10 per cent of the world’s population. Almost one in three of all virus fatalities since the start of the pandemic have taken place in the region.

Health officials say spread of the P.1 variant – first identified in Brazil at the end of last year – is partially responsible for the latest surge in cases. This more infectious strain has been identified in 40 per cent of new infections in Lima and contributed to making April Peru’s deadliest month of the pandemic so far.

April witnessed a surge of cases even in Chile and Uruguay, which have bucked the regional trend by ensuring a rapid rollout of vaccines.

Chile has already delivered at least one dose to three-quarters of its population while more than 50 per cent of Uruguayans have received a shot. But the spread of new variants, allied to a relaxing of quarantine measures, ensured both countries saw record surges in cases during the month. And in Uruguay a dramatic spike in deaths forced renewed tightening of restrictions.

Elsewhere difficulties sourcing enough doses mean vaccination programmes hold out little immediate prospect of relief from the current surge. The World Health Organisation-co-ordinated Covax initiative to supply vaccines to poorer nations – on which countries like Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are relying upon – has been hit by production problems. Meanwhile, the surge of cases in India has led the world’s biggest vaccine producer to impose curbs on exports.

‘Life-saving doses’

The ongoing crisis in the region has led to calls for vaccine solidarity from richer nations that have bought up most of the world’s available doses. This week PAHO director Carissa Etienne urged countries with extra vaccines “to consider donating a significant portion of these to the Americas, where these life-saving doses are desperately needed and will be promptly used”.

The failure to properly prepare for the availability of vaccines is expected to be a key focus of a congressional inquiry into the botched response to the pandemic by Brazil’s federal government which started work this week. Among the matters the opposition-controlled commission is expected to investigate is why the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro rejected an offer from Pfizer made in August of last year to acquire 70 million doses of the company’s vaccine for delivery in December.

A vaccine sceptic for much of the pandemic, Mr Bolsonaro’s interference in his administration’s vaccination planning is blamed for its slow rollout that has seen just a fifth of the population receive at least one dose. Ongoing supply problems mean many cities countrywide are reporting shortages to meet scheduled applications of second doses.

Earlier this week Brazil’s health regulator rejected approval for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine citing a range of concerns about the main vaccine solution being pursued by neighbours Venezuela and Argentina.