MS Risk Blog

Latin America Ignorance and Fear Spread as they Face the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Origins of Covid-19

On December 31st Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) of pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, China. On January 3, China reported that 44 suspected patients have this unknown illness. On January 7, it was identified that the cause of the outbreak was a form of coronavirus which eventually became known as COVID-19. This virus soon began to spread rapidly with the number of confirmed cases in China growing drastically with the country reporting 44 cases at the beginning of January and having 11,791 confirmed cases by January 31st with people dying from the virus. Cases of COVID-19 begin to crop up across countries in Asia with Thailand, Japan and South Korea all reporting confirmed cases. Before the end of January, America, Australia and Germany also reported confirmed cases and by January 31, there were 11 confirmed cases in the United States. By February 24, the WHO announced that the world must stay focused on containment and prepare for a potential pandemic. However by late February, countries from across the globe were all reporting confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, with a February 27 report of 3,474 cases globally and 54 deaths, outside of China across 44 countries. On March 9, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, with the number of cases and deaths increasing every day and with some of the hardest hit countries being in Europe, notably Italy and Spain.

Outbreak in Latin America

The first case of COVID-19 in Latin America occurred in Brazil, on 26th February 2020. As of April 1, Latin America reported 20,081 cases and 537 deaths across the region. The response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Latin America has overall been in line with global health recommendations with exceptions in Brazil and Mexico.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, has come under fire since the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in his country due to his attitude towards the pandemic. He has continuously stated that the virus is no worse than the flu and has continued to go against social distancing measures due to the effect it could have on the country’s economy. He has become the centre of an argument for spreading misinformation regarding the COVID-19 outbreak and underplaying the severity of the virus and pandemic which has killed thousands of people across the globe.

Similarly in Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had a very blasé attitude towards the pandemic. The first two cases of COVID-19 in Mexico were confirmed on February 28, with the numbers steadily growing over the next few weeks. In the early stages of the virus in Mexico, the health ministry expressed hesitancy to closing the boarders as they had few cases and closing the borders with the US would greatly affect the economy. However, by March 17, Mexican authorities were seen to be dragging their feet towards stricter measures. with the President himself attending meet and greets, hugging surging crowds of supporters and kissing babies. On March 24, President Obrador, whilst attending a rally, stopped to pull out two religious amulets and stated that they were protective shields which were protecting him from the disease. Mexico temporarily closed its border with the United States for 30 days on March 20. The number of confirmed cases in Mexico by the end of March was at 475 with six deaths however by April 15 the number of confirmed cases had risen to 5,399 and 406 deaths.

Along the same lines as Mexico and Brazil however, reported in more extremity is the reaction to the pandemic by Nicaragua with President Daniel Ortega going into isolation from March 12, leaving his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo to contain the pandemic. However, the response from Nicaragua has gone against all global health regulations, with no lockdown or social distancing being in place. Even to the point where they are not reporting any cases the current figures that are available show the number of cases at nine with one death.

However, the majority of countries in Latin America have taken the advised steps of social distancing and followed suit with the widespread lockdowns as seen across Europe and the United States. As of March 26 almost all countries in Latin America have closed their borders and instructed residents to go into lock down in a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Chile was one of the first countries to enact closures of schools and begin a total lockdown, along with Bolivia, Colombia and Honduras. All have been using their police and armies to maintain the pandemic and to help provide resources of water, food and medicine to their residents in lockdown.

Indigenous communities across South America have also gone into lockdown as the pandemic could wipe out a whole tribe if it was to enter the community. Tribes have closed their reserves to visitors and have also ordered the suspension of schools and community meetings. They have also instructed their people to practice social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and potentially wipe out large numbers of their population.

Struggling due to COVID-19

Despite the early actions of most Latin American countries, they have seen a gradual increase of the virus however, it is likely that the figures could have been worse if these actions were not taken to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. The health care systems across Latin America are facing the pressure.  Some countries, whose health care systems prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 were already struggling, have seen these systems worsen. Mexico’s health care system was severally damaged prior to the outbreak and was rebuilding when the pandemic hit. There was a lack of medical staff and equipment across the board.

Ecuador has also been highly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak with hospitals and cemeteries collapsing under the numbers of ill and dead. The system is struggling to the point where authorities are having difficulty in removing the bodies of those who have died from their homes, leaving families living with their dead love ones and even bodies being left abandoned on the streets.

Venezuela, which continues to be impacted by its political crisis – with two presidents Juan Guaido who is self-proclaimed and supported globally and another President Nicolas Maduro who was elected and inaugurated in January 2019 – has been hit as well by the outbreak. At the end of March, in a bid to curb the growing outbreak, Venezuelan authorities ordered a national quarantine. However, figures are unclear as they have not reported data regarding epidemics for years. The latest COVID-19 figures put the total number of cases in Venezuela at 204 as of April 15.

As of April 15 across Latin America there have been over 72,000 confirmed cases with the number continuing to grow. At least 3,241 fatalities have been recorded, with a large percentage of this being reported in Brazil,s Peru, Chile and Ecuador.

Health Care Workers Targeted

With the growing number of cases and deaths across Latin America, fear has begun to spread and has caused people to react to the pandemic with ignorance. Medical staff across Latin America have begun to face hostility and aggression from the local populations and have even been accused of spreading COVID-19. There have been reports of nurses being attacked, with some being shoved to the ground, incidents of medical staff having bleach thrown on them in order to disinfect them, as well as aggression towards them on public transport and even not being able to use public transport.

A nurse reported she was attacked by a group of children who squirted fruit juice and soda on to her white nurses’ uniform, shouting at her “it’s COVID! Stay away from us.” She was then hit in the face by a mother of one of the children, knocking her to the ground. All in the process of her defending herself for wearing a uniform of a nurse, she broke two fingers in the altercation and is no longer able to do her job. She also reported that at the time of the incident she had not treated any COVID-19 patients. This however is not the first case of hostility towards health care providers. Others have reported that despite being praised as heroes by officials and media outlets for fighting the virus with limited resources they are facing increasing hostility.

Nurses make up 80% of the health care workers across Latin America and play a crucial role in treating COVID-19. These people are not only trying to help but in the process are also putting their own health at risk by working with infected patients. However with now facing the threat of being attacked when they are commuting to and from work, health staff are being advised to travel in plain clothes in a bid to prevent such attack. Due to the rising hostility medical staff and health care workers in Mexico City are being transported to and from work on private hire coaches to prevent attacks. Elsewhere in the region, notably in Panama and Colombia, there have been incidents of drivers banning nurses from public transport while those that have allowed nurses on board have seen reports of these individuals stating that they were given dirty looks by other passengers.  Another, health care professional reported that his building administration have banned him from using the elevator and the common areas of his apartment building because he might give other residents COVID-19. As a result, he has to climb six flight of stairs to get to his home every day. With every case of aggression that is reported there is room to believe that a lot of cases are going unreported over fear of retaliation for reporting these attacks.

It is not just medical workers who are facing such aggression, normal residents and television presenters are also facing such acts. Television producer Rodrigo Fragoso in Mexico City reported that when he had tested positive for COVID-19, he faced hostility from his neighbours with them throwing bleach at his front door to disinfect it and them preventing his friends and family from delivering food, or water. It got to the point where he reported the neighbour’s actions to the authorities, resulting in an apology from his neighbours.

Ignorance, worry and collective panic is spreading just as quickly as COVID-19 cases are across Latin America. The actions of these people are most often due to them wanting to protect their families however, it is being carried out in wrong way. The populations need to be educated on COVID-19 and that health care workers need to be respected and protected by the authorities whether that be in tighter controls or providing private travel. Every day, health care workers are trying to protect the populations in Latin America and prevent the further spread of COVID-19, while at the same time putting themselves at risk, which could cost them their health and life.