Coronavirus ravages Latin America: Lessons for India

Poor civic and healthcare infrastructure a common link

Politics

July 8, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Brazilian President Joel Bolsonaro has long dismissed threats from coronavirus, sinking his country deeper into crisis due to utter mismanagement

Poor healthcare infrastructure, inadequate and delayed responses by governments as well as low testing makes the entire Latin American region a hotspot for the pandemics. India shares many of the problems of the region. Its coronavirus graph is beginning to replicate that of Brazil’s, despite different policies.

The news that Brazilian President Joel Bolsonaro has tested positive for coronavirus is perhaps one of the better examples of nature running its true course. Bolsonaro has long laughed off Covid-19 and the challenges that the pandemic poses for the entire humanity.

Bolsonaro has behaved in as irresponsible manner as no other leader in the world, save the US President Donald Trump who has also failed to draw up a proper response to the pandemic and as a result over 3 million US citizens have been afflicted by it and nearly 135,000 have died so far. In Brazil, too, the situation is dramatic as 67,000 persons have died from the illness that has afflicted over 1.7 million Brazilians.

The last few weeks have seen the focus of global media covering the coronavirus pandemic distinctly westwards from Europe. Having focused on the old continent for nearly three months when the pandemic was running wild in the Old Continent, the global attention has been on the way the virus has taken hold of the Americas, notably Central and South America, besides the United States of America.

The first confirmed case of the virus first appeared in the continent in Brazil on February 26, even though some experts believe that the virus had already reached Latin America as early as January. In the four months since, the virus has reached every country in the region and now over two million cases have been recorded, with over 100,000 deaths.

There are concerns that the data is unreliable as countries in the region are conducting very few tests in proportion to the population and that some countries are under-reporting the positive cases and deaths. For instance, Mexico, which has reported over 25,000 deaths – the second highest in the region – conducts only three tests per 1000 people, while the United States, not the best example either, is doing 86 tests per 1000 people. Chile, the most prosperous country in the region is also lagging behind with about 53 tests.

The biggest challenge for the region has been very weak and indecisive political leadership to address the biggest challenge that the world has faced in living memory. One major failure has been that some of the biggest countries in the region, including Brazil and Mexico, failed to impose strict lockdowns to curb the virus from spreading. As a result both the nations are facing the brunt of the impact of the pandemic. Pretty much like the US President Donald Trump, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the threat of the virus and had himself been ordered by courts to wear mask in public or face a fine. With the President himself taking the virus lightly, it is no wonder that Brazil has been ravaged by the virus, with over 54,000 deaths so and the rate of new infections as well as deaths is still increasing everyday, making some experts to forecast that the country could see over 125,000 deaths by August.

Bolsonaro is clearly struggling in dealing with the virus. He has already seen two health ministers quit in quick succession due to sharp disagreements with the President on his policies. For instance, Bolsonaro said gyms and beauty parlours could reopen, even while the the death count by the virus continued to scale new heights everyday. Bolsonaro had also stopped publishing daily data about the virus and was forced to do so by the courts. The two health ministers also strongly disagreed with Bolsonaro over the use of anti-malarial drug, hydroxycholorquine, as a medicine to treat people with mild symptoms of Covid-19. Incidentally, US President Trump is himself a big fan of this drug, whose efficiency has not yet been proven in any tests.

It is not that all the leaders in the continent have behaved irresponsibly like Bolsonaro. Some did indeed take a very prudent and cautious approach by imposing strict lockdowns early on during the spread of the virus. However, even these countries like Peru or Argentina have seen an explosion in the number of victims, in a pattern very similar to the European Union where despite fairly different responses in France, Italy, Germany or the United Kingdom, the virus did manage to kill tens of thousands of people.

But as in Europe, consistency in policies and strict measures on the ground are paying off in some Latin American nations as well, notably Argentina and Uruguay where the experts believe the virus is under control and the worst may already be over for these countries.

However, for the rest of the region the situation remains alarming. As in practically every country in the world, the pandemic has overwhelmed the healthcare system, with Ecuador being amongst the earliest to see a collapse in face of the sharply rising numbers of patients. The situation is perhaps even worse in the two of the largest countries – Brazil and Mexico – where most of the provinces face a severe shortage of hospital beds as well as qualified medical professionals. Indeed, the high death rates are due to the lack of healthcare and in several parts of the region, which are extremely poor, mortalities due to the virus are set to jump. A survey in Bolivia found that one of the cities, Trinidad, had over 16 pc of all cases in the country, even though the city itself is barely a sixth as large as capital La Paz. This could be due to the fact that only about 26 pc of the residents of Trinidad have access to sanitation and four in ten still lack access to drinking water.

Both Brazil and Mexico have large parts of population lacking access to sanitation, tap water as well as basic healthcare. It is the population in these areas that is most vulnerable as the pandemic spreads. Another factor that is bound to hit the poor across the region is the dramatic collapse of the economy, with most experts pegging a decline of over 9 pc in the regional GDP, the sharpest ever for most nations in the region. Incidentally, the economic costs of the pandemic seem to be much higher than in most other parts of the world.

Wracked with sharp political differences internally and divided societies, such as Brazil, Bolivia and Mexico, most of the Latin American would struggle to overcome the blow of the coronavirus and could take much longer than the rest of the world to recover.

India, where the virus has taken hold many weeks after it had struck Latam, is currently following the same path as Brazil, even though the policies in the two countries were highly contrasting. While Bolsonaro never really locked down the country, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response was to order the world’s biggest and by far the worst planned lockdown that gave a notice of barely four hours, late in the night, for people to prepare for staying indoors in their homes for several weeks at a stretch.

Like Bolsonaro and Trump, Modi too believes in surprising his fellow citizens with big announcements and tall claims which almost never stand up to a closer scrutiny and often are abandoned soon. Even though the lockdown had been place for several weeks, the total number of cases in India continued to rise sharply through the months of April and May and when Modi announced easing of those restrictions, the pandemic had begun to play havoc in key Indian cities – Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata & Chennai, to name a few. The economic cost of the lockdown for India is no lesser than the Latam region and the situation is far more dramatic in India where the per capita income is much lower than most Latam nations.

It’s never too late to learn and change. One can hope that India can draw some concrete lessons from the pandemic’s spread in other countries and boost its spending on the most vulnerable sections of the society and bring in dramatic improvements in the healthcare infrastructure. India would also need to up its R&D expenditure as its pharmaceutical companies, once the key suppliers of generic medicines globally, have ceded much ground to neighbouring China, which now accounts for over 50 pc of the active pharmaceutical ingredients that go into making of any medicine.

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