‘Alarm bells’: the chaos of COVID-19 in Brazil provokes fear and countermeasures from neighbors

MONTEVIDEO / BUENOS AIRES / ASUNCION (Reuters) – When the Copa América basketball kicked off last month amid a pandemic, the hosts in Cali, Colombia, took no chances.

Brazilian Elisabete Tunes Arpino, 65, who lives in the Brazilian city of Santana do Livramento, receives a dose of the CoronaVac coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine from Sinovac, at the Comeri hospital in Rivera, Uruguay, on March 19, 2021. Picture taken on March 19, 2021. REUTERS / Diego Vara

Players and staff of participating men’s national teams from across Latin America lived in a local “bubble” with no contact with outsiders; all were regularly tested for COVID-19.

It was missing in the Brazil contest. The country has been so devastated by the coronavirus, including a new and highly contagious local variant known as P1, that Colombia would not allow Brazilians to land on its soil.

This month a double soccer World Cup qualifying match was also suspended after Colombia’s health minister said it would not allow a charter flight of Brazilian soccer players to land in Colombia for the game.

Sports are just the beginning. Brazil’s neighbors and trading partners are taking steps to limit contact with South America’s largest country and contemplating more draconian ones. The fear is that the progress that many nations in the region have made against COVID-19 could be reversed by new waves of infection from Brazil, whose runaway pandemic is incubating virulent new strains that are worrying medical experts around the world. .

“It is a very alarming situation and a regional threat,” said Leda Guzzi, an infectious disease expert and member of the Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases.

Even Venezuela, devastated by the crisis, has a lot to say. On Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called Brazil “the worst threat in the world in terms of the coronavirus” and rebuked its leader, Jair Bolsonaro, for his “irresponsible attitude.”

Bolsonaro, who contracted COVID-19 last year and wears a mask only sporadically, has repeatedly downplayed the crisis, even as his country has tallied more than 12 million confirmed COVID-19 infections and nearly 300,000 deaths, second only to states. Joined. He has opposed the lockdowns and touted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The president has repeatedly defended his government’s handling of the pandemic.

In landlocked Paraguay, where COVID-19 cases are reaching record highs, on March 16 the government discouraged people from non-essential travel, citing Brazil’s “record high number of infections and deaths from COVID-19. “.

In early March, the Chilean government ordered all visitors to Brazil to be taken to state-run quarantine hotels for a COVID-19 PCR test, and to be kept there if they tested positive. Those rules were tightened last week to impose a mandatory 72-hour stay in a transit hotel even with a negative test.

In the Bolivian department of Beni, an area similar to a state that shares a long land border with Brazil, COVID-19 cases are exploding in the cities of Riberalta and Guayaramerín, according to Ernesto Moisés, Beni’s Human Development secretary.

Many Bolivians in this northern region live off trade and interaction with Brazil. Moises is calling for border closures to help save lives.

“I think now is a time for the authorities to forget about politics and everything, we have to be tough because you can’t do politics if everyone is dead,” he said.


Fueling Brazil’s deadly outbreak is a more contagious variant of the new coronavirus, known as P1, which emerged in the northern Amazon region near the end of 2020 and is now prevalent in much of the country. Early studies suggest that it can defeat some antibodies and increase the chances that a person will be reinfected.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional arm of the World Health Organization, said Tuesday that the P1 variant had been detected in 15 countries in the Americas and was a major cause for concern.

In Argentina, which has been reluctant to close borders with Brazil, its main trading partner, calls for stricter rules are growing stronger from scientists and regional leaders.

In a video meeting on Monday between the interior minister, health officials and regional governors, participants discussed possible measures, including strengthening border security forces, with a focus on areas near Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, he said. a government source familiar with the procedures.

Also discussed is the possibility of speeding up vaccinations for border personnel, tightening the rules for truckers transporting cargo across borders, and cracking down on travelers, including Argentines, who come from Brazil.

“Work is being done to strongly restrict entry from Brazil with drastic restrictions on the frequency of flights from the neighboring country,” said a government source on Tuesday, who said that the restrictive measures would be defined in the coming days.

Guzzi, the Argentine expert on infectious diseases, is among the health experts calling for border closures, restrictions on people coming from Brazil or mandatory confinement periods.

“What happens to Brazil has a very important impact on what happens in our national territory,” he told Reuters. “If this variant (P1) takes hold in Argentina, it can be very dangerous.”

In Uruguay, a popular vacation spot for Brazilians, hospitals in towns and cities near the Brazilian border are reaching a saturation level and running out of beds.

Uruguay, once the best Latin American country to contain the virus, is now seeing cases skyrocket. The country’s average daily per capita infection rate of about 50 cases per 100,000 now exceeds Brazil’s at 35 per 100,000, according to data on confirmed cases.

In Montevideo, health authorities last week launched a task force of specialists to analyze test samples to help track the entry of new variants, including P1. Uruguayan authorities confirmed that they had detected the Brazilian variants P1 and P2 for the first time on Monday.

“The alarm bells are ringing,” said Julio Pontet, president of the Uruguayan Society of Intensive Medicine. He said the increase in COVID-19 cases in Uruguay’s northeastern region that borders Brazil was much worse than elsewhere.


Meanwhile, Brazil is on the way to its worst month in the pandemic with already more than 40,000 deaths in what some local newspapers have described as a “red march.” Intensive care units in some cities are overwhelmed and have a shortage of medicines.

Bolsonaro, who has rejected the coronavirus vaccine, opposes business closures and social distancing measures. Several state governors, who tightened restrictions last year, have done so again in recent weeks despite protests from the president. Brazilian companies have also begun to demand firmer action, with some like automaker Volkswagen AG having stalled operations.

Yet many countries are reluctant to isolate themselves completely from Brazil, Latin America’s main economy.

And PAHO, while concerned about Brazil’s impact on the region, suggested that total border closure was not the answer.

Jarbas Barbosa, deputy director of PAHO, told Reuters that strong public health measures such as the use of masks, physical distancing, better surveillance and closures when necessary remain the best hope to stop the spread.

In Paraguay, however, local authorities say their country is at risk as long as neighboring Brazil remains a vector of the coronavirus.

“We always say that when Brazil sneezes, Paraguay catches a cold,” said Guillermo Sequera, director of sanitary surveillance for the country’s Ministry of Health.

Report by Fabian Werner in Montevideo, Agustín Geist in Buenos Aires, Daniela Desantis in Asunción, Daniel Ramos in La Paz; additional reports by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogotá, Marco Aquino in Lima, Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Marta López in Buenos Aires, Aislinn Laing in Santiago and Luc Cohen in Caracas; written by Adam Jourdan; edited by Adam Jourdan and Marla Dickerson


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