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LATIN AMERICA | 18-08-2020 15:38

Virus rages in South America as governments grasp for clues

From incoherent mask rules to inconsistent social distancing, South America’s response to the novel coronavirus has been all over the map – here's a look at how each nation is doing.

From mask rules that are a hodgepodge to inconsistent social distancing, South America’s response to the novel coronavirus has been all over the map.

While the actual scope of the disease is unknown because of overall low testing, there are clear losers and a few early winners in a region that was already in bad shape heading into the crisis.

Seven months after the virus started racing around the globe, Uruguay has managed to keep infections at bay, while Chile was able to reverse a recent uptick in case growth. Argentina and Peru have seen the illness explode despite implementing fast and strict lockdowns. And Brazil’s leader seems resigned to letting that nation’s outbreaks rage for the sake of keeping the economy open.

In all, South America has reported about 5.3 million cases and 177,200 deaths. The following is a snapshot of how nations are faring, according to on-the-ground reporting, data from Johns Hopkins and the CIA World Factbook.

Argentina: 299,126 cases; 5,814 deaths; population 45.5 million (0.7 percent infection rate)

Argentina was among the first governments to act in Latin America, putting in a nationwide lockdown and recommending two metres of social distancing and frequent handwashing in mid-March, then making the use of face masks mandatory a month later. As cases eased, the government began allowing some stores to reopen. But a resurgence prompted the government to reverse course and shut all but essential businesses during the first three weeks of July. The retrenchment fuelled popular push back, and some non-essential stores kept their doors discreetly open anyway.

While masks are widely used, enforcement of social distancing measures has been lax and clandestine gatherings are common. Residents technically need special passes to go out freely – they face fines or even jail time without one – but police rarely ask to see them and Argentines are known to skirt detection by carrying around shopping bags to appear they’re just out for a grocery trip.

Argentina has now been in lockdown for more than four months. Residents are increasingly bristling at the limits, and there have been three significant protests against them, including one on the July 9 Independence Day holiday.

Even the nation’s leadership has been criticised for not following the rules. In early June, President Alberto Fernández and his entourage travelled from the capital, a major hotspot, to the ski town of Villa La Angostura, which had no cases. Since then, the president has stayed close to the Buenos Aires area and attended events remotely.

Bolivia: 101,223 cases; 4,123 deaths: population 11.6 million (0.9 percent infection rate)

Bolivia postponed its presidential election last month as infections surged, ignoring objections from the opposition that the moves aren’t legal. It was the second such delay to voting that had been scheduled for May. Both President Jeanine Áñez and Guillermo Aponte Reyer, head of the country’s central bank, have tested positive.

The delays prompted violent protests in recent months, with supporters and opponents of ousted socialist leader Evo Morales clashing in the streets. Groups including labor unionists, miners and coca growers paralysed swathes of the countryside in Morales’s rural heartland with blockades, and at least three people were shot.

Brazil: 3.36 million cases; 108,536 deaths; population 211.7 million (1.6 percent infection rate)

Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the coronavirus risk and argued that high unemployment and the economic fallout pose a bigger risk. The president, who was diagnosed himself with Covid-19 last month, regularly insists the illness is not much worse than the flu.

Two health ministers have quit after publicly clashing with the jobs-first leader, and Bolsonaro has yet to appoint a new one. A lack of federal consensus over how to respond left states and cities largely on their own to decide what to do. Like in the United States, some parts of the country are doing better than others, with masks almost universal in big cities like São Paulo, but less so in poor, rural regions. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has overruled mask rules in schools, churches, stores and factories, although the moves were challenged in courts.

Brazil is now the biggest hotspot globally after the United States.

Chile: 388,885 cases; 10,546 deaths; population 18.2 million (2.1 percent infection rate)

Large swathes of Chile, including neighbourhoods in Santiago, have been in various stages of lockdown for several months, and the government started cracking down much harder on noncompliance in June. Curfews run from 10pm to 5am, and penalties for breaking the rules are as much as 10 million pesos (US$13,000) and three years in prison.

Masks are mandatory across the nation, with officials also recommending frequent hand-washing and avoiding street food and close contact. A recent survey found about 80 percent of the population was following the rules, though there are still clandestine gatherings and poor residents who need to work to eat regularly risk going out. Legally, residents can apply for special permission to go out for two hours, twice a week.

Like elsewhere, tempers run high over the government’s response and leaders’ actions. In April, President Sebastián Piñera was spotted taking a selfie in the Plaza Italia in Santiago, a hotbed of social unrest last year. The image – as well as another one of him shopping for wine – rankled many citizens.

Colombia: 476,660 cases; 15,372 deaths, population 49 million (one percent infection rate)

Colombia has won praise for being clear and consistent in its messaging throughout the pandemic. When the first case was detected in March, officials were quick to alert the public and a nationwide lockdown was put in place almost immediately. Flights have been grounded since.

President Iván Duque speaks to the public every evening and answers questions submitted online. The government flew supplies out to more remote parts of the country and handed out subsidies to anyone living hand-to-mouth. In April, during the strictest quarantines, the hungry were able to hang red flags from their windows to signal they needed food support.

Colombians are largely complying with guidance on masks, quarantine and hand-washing. In large cities like Bogotá and Medellín, anyone caught without a mask faces a fine of about US$300, equal to roughly the minimum monthly wage. While various parts of the country have reopened as cases eased, Bogotá continues under strict controls on a zone-by-zone basis. Bike lanes were recently expanded to help people avoid public transport.

Even with fast action, however, Colombia has recently seen a spike. High levels of poverty and tightly-packed housing complicate efforts to keep the virus in check.

Ecuador: 101,751 cases; 6,083 deaths; population 16.9 million (0.6 percent infection rate)

Ecuador was South America’s first hotspot, getting slammed early in the pandemic as the virus tore through the hot coastal city of Guayaquil. The military took control of the town in March, and a 2 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was imposed nationwide.

In July, a red-to-green traffic light system was adopted for each region. In August, regions in the yellow phase were allowed to reopen movie thearers, zoos, museums and national parks at up to 30 percent capacity. In green zones, overnight curfews were lifted and rules restricting driving were eased.

But with local authorities in charge of setting the rules, curfews and policing, compliance has been spotty. Some 120,000 people have been penalised for flouting various orders, facing fines from US$20 to US$1,200. There aren’t enough police to monitor everyone, so they tend to concentrate on neighbourhoods and regions with clusters of infections.

Some rules have fuelled outcry more than others, including an order in Quito requiring face masks inside your own car and a ban on parties around the end of the school year. The traffic light system also sowed confusion, as drivers feared mistakenly passing through a town designated red and having their car impounded for the duration of the emergency.

Paraguay: 10,135 cases; 145 deaths; population 7.2 million (0.1 percent infection rate)

Paraguay, which loosened restrictions on residents as part of its gradual reopening plan, has closed its borders to Brazil until its neighbour flattens the infection curve. Much of Paraguay is now in its fourth phase of eased restrictions, which saw more activity for hotels, cultural events and private gatherings.

Peru: 535,946 cases; 26,281 deaths; population 31.9 million (1.7 percent infection rate)

Peru took a tough approach to fighting the pandemic, but high levels of poverty and urbanisation undermined efforts. As some homes don’t have running water, even basic steps like regular hand-washing is a challenge.

Masks are mandatory, and the government recently took the added step of requiring people to also wear plastic visors when using public transportation or on airplanes. But their high cost caused push-back, and a recent requirement that latex gloves be used inside shops was scrapped for the same reason. (The government has said it will distribute visors in the same way it shipped out masks early on.)

Controlling the spread in Lima has been particularly difficult, with almost a third of Peru’s population living in its tightly-packed capital city. Police enforced social-distancing rules strictly early on by arresting anyone who broke quarantine, but when that approach became unsustainable, the government shifted to cash fines and penalties like bans on making bank or legal transactions.

Uruguay: 1,457 cases; 40 deaths; population 3.4 million (0.04 percent infection rate)

Uruguay’s swift decision in March to close its borders – the nation sits between Brazil and Argentina – and impose a voluntary lockdown have paid off with cases and deaths holding low so far. Also at play is a robust safety net, thanks to years of public investment in health care, pensions and social spending.

Combined, that allowed the country to begin a phased reopening in late April. By the end of June, most students were back in classrooms, with face masks required but in-person attendance optional.

Its lack of density has helped as well. Uruguay is about the size of Missouri, but with a population half as big.

Venezuela: 34,802 cases; 288 deaths; population 28.6 million (0.1 percent infection rate)

Fear does more than government efforts to keep most people in Venezuela at home. Everyone is all too aware that if they do get sick, their country’s collapsed health-care system can likely do little to help.

Even so, social distancing is sometimes all but impossible given the nation’s severe food shortages. When markets receive deliveries, shoppers quickly rush in to get whatever they can. Car traffic has been limited in certain neighbourhoods to enable doctors and other essential workers to get about more easily, although fuel shortages this year mean even they sometimes can’t get enough gas to go to work.

With the exception of some humanitarian flights, travel in and out of Venezuela has been suspended.

While Venezuela’s official coronavirus case and death figures are low, it’s hard to figure out what’s really going on. Test processing is restricted to two state laboratories and can take weeks to come back – if they come back at all.

by Heather Smith, Bloomberg

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