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Latin America: The global epicenter of COVID-19

The number of COVID-19 cases in Latin America and the Caribbean has positioned the region as the global epicenter of the virus. Health professionals and regional experts are warning that if nothing is done, the region will see major setbacks, including a massive rise in poverty and a rise in authoritarianism, as leaders see an opportunity to crackdown on dissent. Latin America, which accounts for 8% of the world population, has reported nearly 30% of the global fatalities.

"We are deeply concerned with how rapidly the pandemic is expanding," said Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, at a recent press conference.

Reported deaths in the region have topped 230,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, putting the death toll for the region as a whole higher than that of the United States and Canada combined. If prevention measures are not maintained, the death toll could reach 438,000 by October, according to the World Health Organization's regional director for the Americas. 

Brazil is the second most affected country in the world, just behind the United States, surpassing 3 million coronavirus cases and more than 105,000 deaths. President Jair Bolsonaro contracted the virus himself after refusing to wear a mask in public and continuing to hold public gatherings at the height of the crisis. Bolsonaro's wife and eight government ministers have also contracted the virus.   

Bolsanaro fully recovered and used the experience to downplay the virus saying, "What are you afraid of? Face up to it." His government's lack of response led local governments and even local gangs, to implement lockdowns of their own.

A patient infected with COVID-19 is treated at the Intensive Care Unit of the Santa Casa de Misericordia Hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on August 13, 2020.  SILVIO AVILA/AFP via Getty

Mexico City never fully shut down, and Mexico recently overtook Britain as the country with the third-highest death toll in the world, with 54,000 deaths.

Other heads of state in Latin America also tested positive for COVID-19, including Bolivian President Jeanine Añez and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was hospitalized for a few weeks.   

A United Nations report warns that if the region is unable to control the spread, countries might see 45 million more people fall below the poverty line. The report says as gains in inequality and poverty begin to corrode, so too will democracy, with the potential for civil unrest. 

 "The pandemic arrived in Latin America at a time when the region was already suffering a democratic disaster," said Daniel Zovatto, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy and Latin America Initiative, referring to the wave of anti-government protests that took over the region last year, in countries including Chile, Venezuela, Honduras, and Haiti.    

"We were also in an economic situation that was already on a downward trend. When the pandemic came, it exacerbated and accelerated all these negative problems," he said.

In some cases, like that of El Salvador, Zovatto said that President Nayib Bukele used the pandemic to consolidate executive power from the congress and supreme courts since he did not have a majority. But there are more serious examples, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua - countries that already have authoritarian regimes – which have used coronavirus restrictions to crackdown on dissent and protests.

"We have to coordinate, and speak out as one voice to defend our interests," said Zovatto, of all the countries in Latin America, "to let the world know that Latin America also needs help. If we don't find that help, we're going to find ourselves in a very difficult situation." 

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