The pandemic has the countries in the southern corner of Latin America cornered. Neither Uruguay’s permissive policies nor Argentina’s lengthy quarantines have prevented the nations from heading the Covid-19 mortality rates, along with their neighbour Paraguay.
Almost 15 months after the virus first appeared in the region, those countries are today undergoing their worst moments of the virus crisis.
"The burden on the health services, including for gravely ill patients in intensive care units, continues to be very high in most Southern Cone countries," warns Sylvain Aldighieri, Covid-19 manager for the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).
The only nearby exception is Chile, where "a gradual descent in new cases" is observed.
Aldighieri alerted the authorities to the extra pressures "at the start of the Southern Hemisphere winter, which historically coincides with the season for acute respiratory diseases," exhorting them to vigilantly and rigorously apply public health measures.
The predominance of the Brazilian variants of the virus and increased mobility could explain the aggravated crisis, experts agree.
Fall from grace
In Uruguay "people do not believe" in the gravity of the virus, intensive care specialist Francisco Domínguez told AFP. "Until they’ve got somebody [a relative] here inside, they don’t believe."
From making international headlines for its model handling of the pandemic, Uruguay has now passed to crown the ranking of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the last fortnight with 22, according to AFP data compiled on Thursday, based on official government data.
Then come Paraguay (19 dead) and Argentina (15) with Colombia, Brazil and Peru following on the list. By way of comparison, the United States registered 2.5.
With 3.6 million inhabitants, Uruguay today shows "historic" figures for the entry of Covid patients into intensive care wards, Julio Pontet, president of the Sociedad Uruguaya de Medicina Intensiva, told AFP.
To keep the economy running, President Luis Lacalle Pou has advocated "responsible freedom" for the citizenry, refusing to confine the population despite the pressures of doctors, opposition sectors and civil society.
An intense pace of Covid-19 immunisation – 28 percent of the population completely vaccinated and 47 percent with the first dose – has not yet clearly made itself felt on the curve of contagion and death, however, as is occurring in Chile.
This campaign has already reached Uruguayan youth. Florencia de Britos, 19, joined a long queue last Wednesday at a mobile vaccination unit in the coastal department of Canelones, a government initiative designed to inoculate the inhabitants of smaller or less accessible zones.
"Obviously I’m not going away," she told AFP, "I’ve always wanted to be vaccinated."
Fatigue is noticeable in Argentina after a 2020 with restricted outdoor hours, curfews or total quarantine, which more recently have been alternating with short periods of greater flexibility.
"My nerves are shot, I had to go to a shrink because I could not stand being locked up," lamented pensioner Nadia Mariella, 73, after being vaccinated at the Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires.
Last Saturday, the country began a new nine-day lockfown to face up to a new onslaught with an unprecedented daily average of 30,000 cases of contagion and 500 deaths or more.
Irresponsible behaviour, the delayed adoption of tougher restrictions, the lack of vaccines and the more aggressive new strains of the virus explain the voracity of this new wave, according to Elisa Estenssoro, who forms part of the committee of experts advising the government of President Alberto Fernández.
"The habits of the population are not in line: social meetings, people without face-masks... Some take heed while there is denialism or rebellion in others," she maintained.
The health system is strained to the limit. In Neuquén Heller Hospital, the biggest in the province, closed its doors because it ran out of oxygen.
At Durand Hospital in Buenos Aires "beds are lacking and the staff is exhausted," said Héctor Ortiz, an orderly, last Tuesday. "Only death can free a bed and then they are occupied again."
On last Tuesday’s national holiday, protests convoked by the social networks under hashtags such as ‘#25MRevolucionPorLaLIBERTAD’ were held in various cities against the restrictions, which divide a country which was beginning to show signs of recovery after three years of recession aggravated by the pandemic.
As for vaccination, less than nine of the 45 million inhabitants (or under 20 percent) have received their first dose while 2.4 million have been completely vaccinated, according to official data.
The lack of inputs and vaccines is critical in Paraguay. The Mario Abdo Benitez government has extended a night curfew until June 7 while daytime mobility is hardly affected, fundamentally in the form of limited seating.
"These days we are undergoing high community circulation with scant health system response and a lack of inputs and vaccines," lamented epidemiologist Tomás Mateo Balmelli.
Only three percent of the population of 7.3 million is vaccinated while the authorities recognised as early as March 100 percent occupancy of intensive care beds.
Patients "are dying in the seats or corridors of hospitals or in their own houses," complained the expert.
Dozens of people crowd around the hospitals to find out about the evolution of their relatives, given the impossibility of accompanying them.
Last week a nurse, Elizabeth Marín, chained herself to the Health Ministry to demand an intensive care bed.
"There must be a place for my dad, it’s his right," she told journalists.
Deputy Health Minister Hernán Martínez approached the woman and pledged himself to finding one after asking her for "a bit of patience." A patience which can often prove lethal.
by Lucía Lacurcia, AFP