A resident of the Cidade de Deus community receives food donations amidst the coronavirus pandemic on May 24 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BUDA MENDES
A resident of the Cidade de Deus community receives food donations amidst the coronavirus pandemic on May 24 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BUDA MENDES

São Paulo — In March, when Covid-19 was stamping out lives across the world, Latin America looked like it might escape relatively unharmed. Its governments chose vastly different approaches to confronting the pandemic, from severe lockdown in El Salvador and Peru to relative laxness in Brazil and Mexico.

But as May heads into June, the news could hardly be more dire for the highly urbanised region of 600-million inhabitants — it is, without question, the new epicentre of the new coronavirus, representing about 40% of daily deaths globally.

The statistics are chilling: Brazil has more cases than any country except the US and some models forecast that deaths, currently at 25,000, could more than quadruple in coming months. Mexico had its largest single increase in cases and deaths this week and a top health official said about 30,000 people may die. Peru, Chile and Colombia have all set daily records in the past week.

Latin American countries reported more than 1,900 deaths on Wednesday, a record, accounting for 37% worldwide. Brazil, Peru, Chile and Mexico have each reported more than 10,000 new cases in the past five days, making them four of the top seven countries globally in that period.

“Many of the region’s largest cities are still several weeks away from their peaks,” said James Bosworth, author of the weekly newsletter Latin America Risk Report. “Hospitals will run at capacity for a long time, straining the healthcare systems. Even those cities and countries that do peak will see a multi-week plateau and a gradual descent rather than a sharp drop in cases.”

Complicating the assessment of the situation — as in many parts of the world — is the dearth of data and that forecasting and modeling rates of infection and death have often proved unreliable.

Chile, a country of 18-million, has tested more people than Mexico, which has 127-million inhabitants. Many who have died at home untested aren’t registered as related to Covid-19. But one way to measure the virus’s impact is to compare mortality rates with previous years. A report in Mexico City this week found four times more deaths in 2020 than over the past four years.

A number of Latin American countries dutifully tried to shut themselves down early but often without enough state aid for the many millions who work in the informal economy. And quarantines have been patchy. Outdoor markets where many people buy their food, remained open in some places. To get government aid, recipients who don’t have bank accounts have often had to line up in tight formation, further spreading the virus.

An additional concern is that, across the region, some normal activity is resuming even as caseloads continue to explode. Without more government aid and security forces, many countries may not be able to sustain quarantines until the worst of the storm has passed.

Latin America has a sophisticated elite whose members appear to have been the first infecters as they returned from skiing in Colorado and Carnival celebrations in Italy. But it also has an enormous underclass who often live in primitive conditions far from decent hospitals. It is those segments of the populations, some of whom live in close quarters without clean water, that are now burning with infection.

The nightmare scenario some feared would come to pass in Syria or India appears to be unfolding in Brazil.

This week, Brazil recorded daily death figures outpacing the US, the global epicentre, and at this pace will likely surpass fatality numbers in Spain and France within a week. Neighbouring countries, such as Paraguay, Uruguay and Colombia, have closed borders to Brazil and the US imposed a travel ban this week.

A UBS report published on Wednesday said that six of Brazil’s 27 states are peaking while total deaths are increasing in 21 states. There’s no sign of any peak in Mexico yet, the analysts wrote.