An increasing number of young lives are being extinguished as Covid-19 accelerates across Latin America and the Caribbean, the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has warned.
Dr Carissa F Etienne, the group’s Dominican director, said she feared that with infections surging in countries including Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and the Guyanas the next three months could bring further pain to a region already reeling from the 14-month pandemic. Latin America is home to 8% of the global population but last week suffered more than a third of all Covid deaths – a growing proportion of them young people.
“Today, more Latin American countries than ever before are reporting more than 1,000 cases a day, and our hospitals are fuller than ever … Look around intensive care units now across our region and you will see that they are filled not only with elderly patients but also with younger people,” Etienne said, noting how hospitalization rates for under-39s had jumped by over 70% in Chile in recent months.
“In Brazil, mortality rates have doubled among those younger than 39. It has quadrupled among those in their 40s and tripled for those in their 50s between December 2020 and March 2021,” Etienne added. “This is tragic, and the consequences are dire for our families, our societies and our future.”
Colombia, which is also facing the deadliest chapter of its epidemic, has simultaneously been shaken by a week of unrest, with hundreds injured and at least 24 killed during protests against a planned tax increase linked to the health emergency.
The PAHO chief said the slow distribution of vaccines meant the only way to cut infections was toughening restrictions and preventative measures.
“We know what it takes to get there: social distancing, the wearing of masks, avoiding gathering in closed spaces are the key to reduced transmission, especially as the dangerous variants of concern circulate.”
But in many countries there is scant sign of authorities being willing to take such steps. On Wednesday, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly trivialized Covid and undermined containment measures, told an event he was “sick to the back teeth” of masks and threatened to issue a decree against regional leaders who sought to “oppress” citizens with Covid restrictions.
Argentina’s former security minister Patricia Bullrich, who has been likened to Bolsonaro, has railed against government efforts to control the outbreak with a coronavirus curfew and shutdown of schools, despite recently being infected herself.
Etienne said governments that were resisting stricter measures needed to change tack urgently and ready their health systems for a renewed onslaught. “Countries must be prepared for what is in store,” she said.