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COVID-19 is ravaging Latin America

In a virtual seminar hosted Wednesday by the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, participants presented projections for deaths in the region.
A healthcare worker dressed in full protective gear draws blood from a woman to test for the new coronavirus during a house-to-house COVID-19 testing campaign, in the Villa Rosasani neighborhood of La Paz, Bolivia, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
A healthcare worker draws blood from a woman to test for the new coronavirus during a house-to-house COVID-19 testing campaign in a La Paz neighborhood on Aug. 28. Photo: Associated Press

Latin America continues to be a “hot spot” for COVID-19. The region has just 8 percent of the world’s population, yet it accounts for 43 percent of the deaths worldwide.

“At the end of the year, the first cause of death in Latin America will be COVID-19,” said Rafael Lozano, director of Health Systems at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Lozano presented his findings during the online conference “COVID-19 in the Americas: Policies and Perspectives,” sponsored by the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

He was joined by University President Julio Frenk, a medical doctor and global public health expert who was the former minister of health of Mexico, and Felicia Knaul, health economist and professor at the Miller School of Medicine and director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas.  Michael Touchton, associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences, moderated the discussion.

The University of Miami was leveraging its “unique geographical advantage to forge research, education, academic exchange, and innovation-driven partnerships throughout the Americas,’’ according to Frenk.

“Latin America has become a global hot spot for COVID-19 with more than 5 million confirmed cases,” he added. “Beyond the suffering caused by the pandemic itself, long-standing disparities based on poverty, ethnicity, sex, and gender have been laid bare by the pandemic. In addition to that, health systems in the region face a host of exacerbated challenges including shortages of medicine and staff.”

Knaul gave an overview of findings from the COVID-19 Observatory, an interactive platform that the institute established that has analyzed national and subnational policies in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia. 

One of the challenges in looking at the region is that every country has reacted to the pandemic in different ways, the experts agreed. Even within countries, individual towns and regions have reacted differently.      

While Mexico and Brazil continue to be the global hot spots in the pandemic, countries such as Chile are handling the pandemic well, said Knaul.  “Chile is the example to follow,” Knaul pointed out. Colombia is also beginning to level the curve as well.

The policies toward the mandatory use of masks in the different countries is also measured by the observatory. Although Mexico and Brazil lag in this area, all countries in the region, as of April, began some kind of policy requiring the use of masks. Colombia’s condition that masks be worn has been clear from the very beginning of the pandemic, and that may have played a role in its declining numbers.

“It isn’t enough for the country to say that you have to use a mask, but you have to say when, how it fits, and so on,” Knaul said.

Most of the deaths forecasted by Lozano toward the end of this year is expected to take place in Mexico and Brazil, two countries that have not had sound national policies on how to respond to the virus. Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro first mocked the pandemic and often appeared publicly without a mask. Mexican president Manuel Lopez Obrador has not issued any public policies to contain the pandemic, even as his country surpassed 17,000 deaths.

“Pandemics should not be politicized,” said Knaul. “It is inappropriate to politicize an issue of public health.”