Stark Warning

Slowly and ominously, as the chronicle of a death foretold, the epicentre of the corona pandemic is moving south of the border. Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO), down but far from out, issued a stark warning that after developed countries have managed to flatten the curve and start emerging from lockdown, the virus is now spreading in poorer countries, cutting a swath through societies along class divisions.

Earlier this week, Brazil passed the United Kingdom and progressed to third place on the global corona infection ranking. Only the United States and Russia are ahead of the South American country with its underwhelmed president and overwhelmed public health services. One day after this news broke, Brazil registered the highest number of corona deaths and infections so far.

In a few weeks’ time, President Jair Bolsonaro sacked one health minister and had another one resign in disgust. The latter one, Nelson Teich, likened the federal health ministry to a ship cast adrift in a perfect storm and feared the pandemic may claim well over 150,000 lives over the next months.

Mr Teich’s predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was summarily fired after questioning the president’s refusal to obey social distancing rules. Whilst the pandemic rages and mass graves are being dug, Brazil’s politicians – not usually standard bearers for propriety in public policy – hurl accusations at each other, losing sight of a suffering nation.

According to the country’s statistics agency, the Brazilian economy may shrink by as much as a tenth this year. The Corona Recession could herald the arrival of yet another ‘lost decade’. However, neither the health emergency nor the economic meltdown is being discussed in Brasília.

Sometimes described as a Trump on steroids, President Bolsonaro still doesn’t seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation: he declines to use a face mask, keep his distance, and refrain from ordering a national lockdown which, he says, would cripple the country’s already rickety economy.

Meanwhile, the government of Mexico admitted that it had probably underestimated the number of corona deaths by an order of magnitude. There too, the president kept hugging his adoring fans until quite recently whilst he dismissed warnings of public health officials as ‘alarmist’ scare mongering.

Absent a public information campaign, popular knowledge about the disease and its transmission is limited, leading to all sorts of wild theories. Mexican health workers report being shunned, threatened, and abused on their way to work by passers-by. Almost 50 attacks against health workers have been recorded by police.

With the sole exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, no Latin American country is equipped to handle a major public health crisis. Both political determination and proper healthcare funding are found lacking. The cost is calculated in human lives.