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How COVID-19 is driving political, economic crises in Latin America

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Costa Rica, meeting with leaders from Central America as COVID-19 worsens across Latin America and the Caribbean. Peru on Tuesday revised its official death toll, almost tripling it — to 180,000 — making it the worst death rate per capita in the world. Vaccine distribution and equity are likely to come up during Blinken's visit. Producer Ali Rogin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Costa Rica, meeting with leaders from Central America.

    One of the likely topics will be vaccine equity, as the COVID-19 crisis across Latin America and the Caribbean worsens.

    Today, in Peru, the government revised the official death toll, almost tripling it to 180,000, making it the worst death rate per capita in the world.

    It's where producer Ali Rogin begins her report.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In Lima, Peru, sprawling hillside cemeteries are reaching their limits, leaving the family of COVID-19 victim Joel Bautista desperate.

  • Ketty Bautista (through translator):

    We have decided to bury him in the garden in front of my house, because there is no solution. What else can I do with my dead brother in my house?

  • Ali Rogin:

    The Bautistas found a burial plot at the last moment.

    But across Latin America, families like them are dealing with a devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Argentina has been under strict lockdown since late May, when cases skyrocketed. South America's largest soccer tournament, the Copa America, was supposed to take place in Argentina.

    But on Monday, officials moved it to Brazil, where cases also remain high. Some Brazilians said the move was misguided.

  • Amuri Barbosa (through translator):

    The country is not yet ready to host a Copa America because of the health issues. They have not taken care of those of us here. Imagine those who come from other countries.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In Colombia, intensive care units are stretched beyond their capacities. In Ecuador, this hospital turned a cafeteria into a COVID ward, then added tents as the numbers grew.

  • Alvaro Gaibor (through translator):

    In recent weeks the hospital is at 130 percent to 150 percent of its capacity.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In May, Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for about 30 percent of COVID deaths worldwide, despite being only 8 percent of the global population.

    COVID variants are among the chief culprits. The P-1 strain, first detected in the Brazilian Amazon, has spread throughout the region. In Peru, officials say it's caused 40 percent of new cases.

  • Violeta Bermudez (through translator):

    We are certain of the presence of the Brazilian variant, with cases in between eight and 10 regions around the country where we have a significant frequency of it.

  • Ali RoginN:

    Critics blame Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for what they say is a cavalier attitude.

  • President Jair Bolsonaro(through translator):

    To health professionals, we regret the deaths from COVID and the other deaths in Brazil. But we must face the problem. Life goes on. We are already talking about the third wave.

    If the third wave comes we will also have the fourth, fifth, sixth, infinite waves. Of course, we hope against it, but we must face it.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Bolsonaro discouraged social distancing and face masks. He dismissed COVID-19 as a little flu and encouraged the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure.

    In Brazil's largest cities, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated over the weekend, blaming Bolsonaro for the high death toll.

  • Joana Martins (through translator):

    Impeachment now. Out with Bolsonaro. I can't stand him anymore. There will be more deaths if he stays on.

  • Roberto Medronho (through translator):

    The COVID pandemic is down to a disastrous policy from the federal government, of an anti-scientific policy of denial that goes against social distancing because of the claim it will profoundly affect the economy.

  • Ali Rogin:

    A low vaccination rate is making matters worse. As of late May, only 3 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean were fully vaccinated.

    The United States has come under pressure to share its vaccine surplus with Latin America, in part to counter China's conditional vaccine diplomacy. Honduras has struggled to get Chinese vaccines because of its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Neighboring El Salvador, an ally of China, donated some of its stockpile.

  • Franscisco Alabi (through translator):

    The Salvadoran people are with the Honduran people with this humanitarian donation going beyond borders.

  • Ali Rogin:

    China is also sending vaccines to Uruguay. Seen as an initial success story, the country's cases are surging. It secured enough vaccines for just over half its population.

    President Luis Lacalle Pou said China's help signified strengthening ties.

  • President Luis Lacalle Pou:

    We are ready to upgrade our bilateral cooperation in the area of health. I would consider it very firmly.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In some cases, even aggressive vaccine diplomacy is insufficient. So far, Bolivia has only received about 5 percent of the five million doses it expected from Russia.

  • Jose Rafeal Vilar(through translator):

    Since the vaccination of people with kidney diseases and cancer began, the process has accelerated a little. But we see this could go on until 2026 or even 2027.

  • Ali Rogin:

    As the virus worsens all over the region, it's exposing deep fractures between governments and citizens.

    In Colombia, demonstrators defied second wave lockdowns starting in late April, responding to a planned middle-class tax hike intended to help the pandemic-stricken economy. But even after President Ivan Duque withdrew it, the marches grew, as did the demands. Now protesters are calling for widespread government and police reform.

  • Luis Carlos Garcia (through translator):

    Colombia has lost its fear, and we will keep on until there is real change.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Police are using increasingly brutal tactics. Since protests began, 63 people have died and hundreds have been reported missing. Health officials worry that deaths will continue to rise as protesters contract COVID-19.

  • Monica Rojas (through translator):

    We can't continue like this. We need to take measures, so as to resolve the political issues of the country. But now it is a matter of life and death.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Across the region, the COVID crisis is also fueling an economic one. In Chile, the government is allowing citizens to draw down their pensions for a third time, which economists say is only forestalling a bigger disaster.

  • Vicente Espinoza (through translator):

    It is the only available alternative. But this is like selling your fridge to buy food. The reality is, you're making it worse.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the people of Latin America are also determined to make it better. In Medellin, Colombia, a group of engineers and physicians responded to a ventilator shortage by building their own model from scratch. Mechanical engineer Mauricio Toro spearheaded the project.

  • Mauricio Toro:

    One of the biggest challenges that we had was, all the parts that were necessary for the ventilators were not available.

    So, we ended up having to manufacture parts locally, to tweak existing parts that were not 100 percent the part that we needed, but modifying them and making them fit to purpose.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Three weeks later, the team had three working prototypes, which quickly made their way into hospitals.

  • Mauricio Toro:

    So, there was definitely a learning curve.

    And the team, I would say none of us had ever made a ventilator. And every time we talk to a doctor and they say, we used the ventilator and it worked as expected, just fills us with pride, because we know it's one more life that we have saved.

  • Ali Rogin:

    One more life saved and one fewer addition to a growing death toll in a region in crisis.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

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