Under the radar, coronavirus is consuming Latin America

  • Carolyn Barker-Villena
  • May 28, 2020

By Carolyn Barker-Villena

Around the United States, cities are beginning the process of re-opening after months of observing stay-at-home orders. But for our neighbors to the south, the suffering from COVID-19 is escalating, with the rate of new cases and deaths in Latin America rivaling some of the worst-hit countries in Europe — a tragedy that is going largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

The impact of coronavirus in Latin America — which the World Health Organization now calls the global epicenter of the pandemic — will compound suffering already caused by crises of displacement, insecurity, crime and grinding poverty, and perhaps put the U.S. recovery at risk.

This anguish affects me both professionally and personally. It is my career and vocation to walk with the people of Latin America as they work to improve the lives of their families. But this also directly affects my staff in the region and their families as well as my own relatives and friends who live there and with whom I am in contact on a daily basis.

Taking its toll

In Rio de Janeiro, people are literally dropping dead on the streets from silent hypoxia. Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro insists COVID-19 isn’t a problem and disregards Brazilian health officials’ warnings despite having the 2nd highest number of cases in the world, surpassing Spain and Russia with more than 400,000 cases.

Peru is the next hardest-hit country in Latin America, with more than 130,000 cases and a rate of 4,000 new infections every day despite strict stay-at-home policies since late March. Hospitals are overwhelmed. In some cases, patients are being treated on the streets. Markets are some of the only establishments that remain open since Peruvians can leave their homes only to buy food. Yet in one central market in Lima, 150 of 200 vendors recently tested positive for COVID-19.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, bodies are piling up on the streets because funeral homes are full. Some families don’t even know where their loved ones are.

Meanwhile in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega is downplaying the impact of COVID-19 claiming few cases, but yet the country’s hospitals are overflowing with pneumonia patients.  In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has implemented what some consider draconian measures to control the spread of COVID-19 while brazenly overlooking violations of basic human rights.

Coronavirus disregards borders

On our very own border, young people begging for a chance to find safety from gang violence are being refused entry or incarcerated in detention facilities where COVID-19 is running rampant. Meanwhile in  Baltimore, my hometown and the headquarters of Lutheran World Relief, the Latin American immigrant community is facing a similar silent outbreak. While representing only five percent of Baltimore’s population, Latinos make up as much as a third of COVID-19 cases at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

We know the coronavirus disregards borders—whether they mark a state or country. Rather a global pandemic must be fought with global armor. This armor comprises a global health network of medical professionals and researchers working together to identify effective treatments, and eventually a vaccine. At a country level, the armor is the extra hands and know-how needed to bolster weak local health care systems that were already overwhelmed, even before COVID-19. And at a local level, the armor is made of community volunteers and grassroots organizations. They are the first responders, the fighters on the ground, delivering emergency food aid, masks and critical information on protection from the virus.  

Your love drives our response

Thanks to your love and the support of our donors, Lutheran World Relief was able to pivot many of our existing programs to respond to COVID-19. In El Salvador, our SOS disaster preparedness project has been sharing information on COVID-19 with local communities and is distributing emergency food kits and disinfection supplies to families in need. In Peru, we are sending public health messages to Venezuelan refugees through our VenInformado digital platform, accessible through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Through the USDA-funded MOCCA program’s social media platform, called Mobile Cacao, Lutheran World Relief is reaching thousands of cacao farmers with critical information on how to protect themselves from COVID-19. Thanks to a generous donation from the World Cocoa Foundation and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, we are supporting Ecuadorian cocoa communities affected by COVID-19 by providing protective equipment, non-perishable food kits, personal care kits and products for household disinfection. In Colombia we are setting up hand-washing stations and information dissemination in strategic locations such as markets, bus stations, and town squares.

Your love for your neighbor in need will help us to keep responding in solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Latin America and in other regions around the world.

Carolyn Barker-Villena is senior regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Corus International, the parent organization for Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health.

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Carolyn Barker-Villena, May 28, 2020 email