It's time to boot the pandemic from South America

It's time to boot the pandemic from South America
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When people talk of soccer, they talk about South America. The Copa América concluded with a global audience of more than 5.3 million viewers for the final game, watching the soccer heroics of international stars including Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar of Brazil.

If only the same level of attention were paid to the continent for its struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Brazil is currently the country with the most daily deaths from COVID-19. Four of the top 10 countries with the most COVID-19 deaths per capita in the past week are from South America: Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and Suriname; for most of the past month and a half, Brazil and Peru were also in this group.

During the Copa América, G-7 leaders met to discuss the pandemic and other major global issues. At the meeting in the United Kingdom, the presidents of India and South Africa made guest appearances with direct requests for foreign aid. Not one national leader from South America made a guest appearance at the G7; the meeting included no special discussions of vaccine access for countries seeing the highest levels of illness and death in the world.

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South America has been so ravaged by the pandemic — and its suffering is so invisible — because of poor leadership, high poverty and bad luck. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has denied scientific facts, advocated for worthless remedies and turned down offers to purchase effective vaccines. “I regret the deaths, but we have to live," was the quote from Bolsonaro that people will remember. The failure in leadership extends to all the heads of state who have neglected to come together to produce a regional solution to the world’s biggest challenge of this century.

Even countries with capable national leadership have struggled under the weight of regional poverty and underdeveloped health systems. These factors have complicated the coronavirus response. For example, Colombia drastically increased its testing program, starting from 10,000 tests per day and is currently at 100,000 daily. The time needed for results has shrunk from two weeks to two or three days. Available intensive care unit beds were doubled in a short period of time. This expanded capacity has saved lives, but the financial constraints have limited the scale of the response. 

To make matters worse, South America has seen more than its share of bad fortune in the emergence of dangerous variants, which have upended the most well-laid public health plans. The troubles of Uruguay stand out in particular, as the country has implemented one of the strongest disease surveillance systems in the region. Infected people were located, treated and isolated so that the disease did not spread. But success led to complacency and a lowering of social restrictions, and with a new variant surging across its borders, new cases spiked beyond the capabilities of its health system.

As these tragedies have unfolded, the world has barely paid attention. The reasons start with the nationalist panic early in the pandemic. Leading economic powers took a large share of the market for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits for themselves. China sent some supplies and vaccines to South American nations, but their efficacy is questionable. South American nations are experiencing the curse of the middle-income bracket — too wealthy to need basic assistance, but too poor to compete on the global market.

A more fundamental challenge is that the region has not come together. Brazil’s president still denies the severity of the threat. Regional rivalries have appeared at the worst moments. The result is that the most glaring part of the map has somehow faded into the background.

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This invisibility is deadly. To save the most lives today and decrease the global impact of COVID-19, the world must acknowledge the severity of the crisis in South America. Regional planning efforts must generate a response that reaches everyone regardless of race, income and social standing. And wealthy nations and donors must make many millions of vaccines available in the next few months to prevent more catastrophic surges.

Copa América brought people of different nations together, unlocked their passion and creativity and changed their lives forever. Leaders in the region should take this moment of joy and excitement inspired by Copa América and act together to end COVID-19.

Antonio Trujillo, PhD., is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is the director of the school’s Master of Health Science (MHS) in Global Health Economics degree program. He served as a member of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s Regional Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean.