The Pan American Health Organization is describing South America as the “epicenter” of the Covid-19 virus as new cases and deaths soar in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and lowland areas of Bolivia. Other countries, including Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are also experiencing increases of infections and overloaded health care systems.
Last week, Brazil ranked third in the world for new cases, with more than 455,000 in seven days, trailing only India (1.5 million) and the U.S., while Argentina was seventh in the world with 160,477 followed by Colombia with more than 117,000.
Brazil led the world in deaths last week with more than 20,000, almost triple India’s number and four times more than the U.S.
The rebound in Covid cases has caused a saturation of health services, overloading the capacity of intensive care units in Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay, leading to new restrictions, including quarantines, in several countries.
Experts have attributed the situation both to the increase in social contacts, especially among young people, and to the spread of more contagious and more aggressive variants of the coronavirus. “This increase in infections both in the world and in the Americas is alarming but not surprising. Highly transmissible variants are spreading and social distancing measures have been relaxed,” PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said in a video posted on Twitter.
Among the hardest-hit cities is Medellín, the Colombian city that a year ago was praised as a model in the management of Covid-19. As cases and deaths surge in the city of 2.5 million, hospital staff are tasked with making painful decisions about which sick patients get hospital beds and which don’t. “It breaks your heart to realize that very sick people who need intensive care are being turned away, some of them dying as a result,” says emergency physician Roscoe Lara. “The system has collapsed and hospital staff are suffering along with the patients.”
In recent days, Medellín has registered as many as 80 deaths a day and Antioquia, the department that includes Medellín, recorded a record 146 deaths on April 19. Medellín has joined Bogotá, Cali and Barranquilla in ordering lockdowns of the population in an effort to stop the growing contagion.
Colombia ranks last in South America in the percentage of residents vaccinated, with less than three percent receiving two doses.
Presidents of South American countries are pleading with the leaders of richer countries in Europe and North America, as well as China and Russia, asking for additional shipments of vaccines.
In Ecuador, which went under nightly and weekend curfews last week, President-elect Guillermo Lasso said it was a “moral obligation” of more prosperous countries to help South America. “We only ask for measure of fairness to combat this crisis but also appeal to worlds’ sense of compassion,” he said, pointing out that countries like Ecuador have already paid for vaccines that are late in arriving.
Lasso says one of his first trips after being sworn in as president next month will be to visit the U.S., Europe, China and Russia in search of more vaccines.