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South America in the grip of the pandemic

June 2, 2021

Peru has released new statistics showing that its COVID deaths number well over double the original figure given. And the pandemic holds sway over the rest of the continent as well.

Gravediggers in protective suits carry out nigh-time burial of COVID victim in Sao Paulo
The pandemic in South America kicked off in Brazil and has swept the regionImage: Amanda Perobelli/REUTERS

The new figures are horrific: Peru has just released statistics showing that more than 180,000 people have died in connection with a coronavirus infection and not 70,000, as originally stated.

The readjusted numbers leave it with the world's worst per capita death rate, at more than 500 deaths per 100,000 residents. This bombshell has made headline news elsewhere in the world but hardly got a mention in Peru itself.

Coronavirus incidence rates worldwide

Perhaps that says it all about a country that has become inured to the lack of intensive care beds and oxygen, as well as to rich people paying to jump the vaccination queue. With presidential elections coming up on Sunday, Peru is in election fever. Despite the ongoing danger, the pandemic is taking a back seat for a few days.

But how can figures suddenly more than double? The explanation is quite simple. Up to now, Peru's statistics have included only the deaths of people who tested positive for COVID. The new figures include those whose clinical data "probably" indicate that they were infected.

Brazil: Copa America despite huge death toll

In Brazil, South America's biggest nation, the scale of the pandemic has also taken on new dimensions. Peru's eastern neighbor has now recorded more than 463,000 COVID-linked deaths and is number two in the world behind the United States in terms of overall fatalities.

The origins of the initial outbreak in Rio de Janeiro tells us a lot about why South America has been so hard hit by the virus. Housekeeper Cleonice Goncalves — Rio's first suspected coronavirus victim — was probably infected at work. In all likelihood, her employers contracted the virus during Carnival celebrations in Italy and brought it back with them to Brazil. This apparent route of infection has been typical in the region: South America's upper classes imported the disease from Europe, and then the virus spread like wildfire through poor, overpopulated neighborhoods where hygienic standards are often catastrophic.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro grinning while holding national soccer strip
Bolsonaro plans to hold the Copa America in Brazil despite runaway COVID figuresImage: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

Topping off this lethal pandemic cocktail, Brazil's populist president has dismissed COVID as being nothing more than "a little flu." Jair Bolsonaro also continues to refuse to impose a lockdown. Brazil and its 212 million populace is currently sliding into the third wave at full speed due to the contagious Brazilian P1 variant, now also known as gamma in WHO terminology.  But that has not stopped the country's plans to host the continent's  Copa America soccer tournament.

Argentina: World lockdown champion but still badly hit

Argentia, by contrast, was extremely relieved that it had managed to finally free itself of the job of putting on the Copa. The nation had partially inherited the job from Colombia after the South American football association Conmebol ruled that Bogota was unable to co-host the event because of social unrest. Argentina is currently undergoing its worst phase of the pandemic so far, with a record figure of more than 40,000 new cases on one single day.

Boxes of Sputnik V being unloaded from a plane in Argentina
Argentina is relying on supplies of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine to get the pandemic under controlImage: Presidencia Argentina/dpa/picture alliance

President Alberto Fernandez and his government have reacted with an extremely strict lockdown. Last year, too, no other South Americans had to spend as long confined in their own four walls as the 45 million Argentines.  Fernandez likes to style himself as the opposite of Bolsanaro, but his record isn't an awful lot better. More than 78,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Argentina so far.

With almost one in two Argentines now living beneath the poverty level, many people are left with no other alternative than to ignore the coronavirus restrictions, if they want to feed their families. Alongside a whole army of poor in South America, they are trying to keep their heads above water with all manner of jobs. The dwindling middle classes have also had enough. Argentina, a country that stumbles from one bankruptcy to another like no other nation in the region, is a pushover for the virus.

Uruguay: Standout status no more

For decades now, Uruguay has tended to look with pity at its bigger neighbor on the other side of the Rio de la Plata when it comes to the economy. The country is still frequently referred to as "the Switzerland of South America" and many Argentines prefer to invest their money there rather than at home. 

And last year, the tiny nation also presented itself as South America's number one when it came to dealing with the pandemic. On some days there were no new cases at all registered among its 3.5 million inhabitants and, on others, there were frequently no more than 20 new infections. 

Uruguayan president Lacalle Pou getting his COVID vaccination
Uruguay saw itself as the poster boy of COVID control last year, but times have changedImage: Ricardo Rey/AFP

But Uruguay has most definitely lost its model student status. Three days ago, it recorded almost 6,000 new infections and its death toll has risen to almost 4,300. It is an example of what happens when a country thinks that it has triumphed over the virus and that it is safe to stop wearing masks and abandon social distancing. 

Just over 5% of the world's population live in South America, but one in three of the world's COVID deaths has been recorded there. Winter is beginning again in the southern hemisphere and the region's hospitals are overcrowded and unable to cope.

What's more, South America is at the back of the queue when it comes to vaccines. Virologists say It is an ideal breeding ground for new variants that are likely to move on to the rest of the world.

This article has been translated from German.  


Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.