The COVID-19 pandemic has a new epicenter – Latin America. The disease entered Latin America’s borders in March when the pandemic was ravaging Europe, and seven countries, including Brazil and Argentina reported their first cases from citizens that had returned from Italy.
Latin America today sees more than 80,000 new cases per day, which is nearly 45% of new cases per day globally. The virus kills more than one person per minute in Brazil, and on June 4, daily reported deaths in Mexico overtook the U.S. Brazil alone accounts for more than half the region’s COVID-19 cases and deaths.
India is another hotspot – the country has reported more than 10,000 new cases per day since June 12, just days after completing a 10-week lockdown.
Latin America’s experience can be useful for India, which is a week or two behind in the spread of the virus and has identical socio-economic conditions. Both India and Latin America have a comparable poverty rate, a large informal work force relying on daily wages, and inadequate healthcare capacity – all factors that make containment of COVID-19 even more difficult.
India and Latin America followed similar trajectories to combat COVID-19: international borders were closed by end-March, well before amassing a large number of cases. With the exception of Brazil and Nicaragua, whose presidents have downplayed the effects of COVID-19, every Latin American country instituted strict lockdowns and quarantines, restricting social gatherings and closing most industries.
Yet, these measures were unable to quell the rapid spread of COVID-19 due to three principal factors that India also contends with:
a) One-fourth of the urban population live in overcrowded, densely-populated slums in India and Latin America, making it virtually impossible to implement effective social distancing and work-from-home measures.
b) Food scarcity among the poor and only one-in-three households owning a refrigerator meant that millions had to venture out for daily meals.
c) Millions of informal workers in India and Latin America were stranded in cities with no means of returning to their hometowns. Transporting migrant workers in safe conditions, while also checking for symptoms was a major challenge.
Some countries and cities in Latin America have fared better than others, and are a lesson for India. Peru and Chile are smaller, of course, but they have tested more than 40,000 per million people for COVID-19, compared with India’s 4,000 per million. India is considering importing Argentina’s Neokit Tests, which cost $ 8 each and provide results within two hours, and a performance that matches the real-time qPCR, which is considered the ‘Gold Standard.’
The health ministries of Peru and Bolivia have passed laws to recommend the use of Ivermectin – an FDA-approved drug, which is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines – to treat COVID-19 patients. Neighbouring Bangladesh too has used Ivermectin with Doxycycline, an antibiotic, to treat more than 60 COVID-19 patients, all of whom have recovered. India could consider recommending Ivermectin for COVID-19 treatment, which is affordable and widely available across the country.
Brazil has turned an infirmity into a strength. The favelas (slums) in Sao Paulo, have created a network of presidentes de rua (street presidents) who oversee each neighbourhood’s food supply, healthcare and aid. These presidentes de rua are able to customize policies that cater to each household’s requirements, saving the state additional resources and valuable time. Due to the lack of running water and essential commodities such as soap, some such as Brazil’s Thiago Firmino, a favela tour guide, have taken it upon themselves to spray disinfectant through entire neighbourhoods and slums. Both these measures are easy to replicate for India’s 100 million slum-dwellers.
India can also learn from Medellin, Colombia’s Silicon Valley, which has used information technology to control COVID-19. The city’s Mayor, Daniel Quintero, launched a mobile app, Medellín me cuida, in early April, where 3 million of the city’s 3.7 million residents, including more than a million employees and employers, are now registered. Such city-run, mobile apps are an alternative to apps run by the central government, such as India’s Aarogya Setu. It saves valuable time spent coordinating between the centre and state, and can be customized to achieve wider coverage. Such apps can be launched by hotspot cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, with the goal of registering at least three-fourths of the city’s population.
In turn, Latin America can learn from India. Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, home to 1 million residents within a 2 km2 area, has shown resilience and quick thinking in COVID-19 management. Nearly 700,000 people have been screened (70% of the population) and officials have set up clinics within Dharavi and shifted COVID-19 patients to quarantine centers nearby. New cases have plummeted from 60 per day in early May to 20 per day currently.
Another example is Kerala, with a population of 33 million people, equaling that of Latin America’s Peru; although Peru has over 220,000 cases, Kerala has only 2,544. This is largely because Kerela has protocols in place to manage floods and a well-prepared healthcare system that has handled epidemics such as Nipah in the past.
Most notable is the experience of Kasaragod district in Kerala, which has so far not recorded a single COVID-19 death. This is due to aggressive contact tracing and early home quarantines, which prevented government clinics from being overwhelmed. Kasaragod uses drones to track people’s movements in densely-populated areas, following a strict policy of testing and isolation for those found to be symptomatic. For its 119 active cases, the district has quarantined over 20,000 people.
The economic impact of COVID-19 has been equally crippling on both regions if not more so on Latin America. India’s economy is expected to contract by 5%, while Latin America’s may fall by 7.6%, leaving both with little choice but to lift lockdowns and tread carefully. To manage that better, India and Latin America can benefit from increased collaboration, especially on the supply of test kits, generic drugs, and joint clinical trials for COVID-19 treatment.
This pandemic is yet another sign that governments across the world need to work together, to solve global issues. Geopolitics and the world wars were the challenges of the 20th century – the challenge of the early 21st century is COVID-19.
Hari Seshasayee is a Latin America analyst specializing in India-Latin America relations. He currently works as an advisor to the Government of Colombia.
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