P.1 And Politics: Will Semana Santa Make Latin America’s New COVID Surge Worse?

Here in the United States, we are seeing an unexpected increase in COVID-19 cases, even as millions of people are vaccinated.

But America’s new boom is small compared to what Latin America is suddenly experiencing. This is especially and terrifying of Brazil, which is setting new COVID death records – more than 3,000 a day over the past week.

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WLRN’s Luis Hernandez and American editor Tim Padgett spoke about this alarming development in Brazil and Latin America – and how things could get worse this week during Christian Holy Week known in the region as Semana Santa.

Excerpts from their conversation:

HERNANDEZ: Tim, let’s start in Brazil, of course, where things seem to be in a complete COVID collapse. What happened there?

PADGETT: The short answer is P.1 and politics. P.1 is the very aggressive variant of the COVID-19 virus that first appeared in the Brazilian Amazon and is now devastating the country. It’s twice as contagious as other strains of coronavirus – and that’s why intensive care units in most Brazilian hospitals are currently more than 90% busy. It is also why the daily death toll from COVID in Brazil can skyrocket. Brazil has recorded around 315,000 COVID deaths – that’s the third highest number in the world – and more than a third of them in the past three months.

And politics?

It’s no secret that right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his political allies have brushed off the pandemic and undermined social distancing efforts. Critics say that is a big reason Brazil has been so vulnerable to this new devastating upswing. Last week, Bolsonaro told a crowd of mostly exposed supporters that officials who are still enforcing social distancing are “petty tyrants”. He even said he could get the military to protect Brazilians from social distancing.

READ MORE: America’s vaccine rollout may not work, but Latin America’s is disastrous

You mentioned earlier that Brazil’s vaccination efforts have so far been disrupted at best. Does it have any chance of containing this new outbreak?

Unfortunately not as fast as it is now. The introduction of the vaccine has been surprisingly slow, and much of it has to do with the political negligence I was just talking about. The Brazilian foreign minister had to resign on Monday – and in just two years Bolsonaro has gone through four health ministers – because of all the chaos. Almost 30% of the US population received a first dose; Brazil, not even 7%. It’s finally starting – and last week Brazil even announced that it had developed its own vaccine. But it won’t be ready for a rollout until July or probably later.

This week is essentially the spring break in Latin America and people like to gather together. But last year there were almost twice as many new cases of COVID in Brazil during Semana Santa as the week before.

It looks like the other big trouble spot right now is Mexico. Does it suddenly have as many COVID deaths as Brazil?

More than that, Luis. That too is amazing. Last week, the official death toll from COVID in Mexico was 200,000. Then over the weekend the Mexican government suddenly revised that number to over 320,000. That makes Mexico now, not Brazil, the country with the second highest number of COVID deaths behind the US. Even before this adjustment, Mexico had the highest death-to-death ratio of COVID in the world, according to Johns Hopkins.

But this also reflects how badly the left-wing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dealt with the pandemic in his country. He was just as carefree about the whole thing as Bolsonaro – he rarely wears a mask either. The adoption of vaccines in Mexico has been even slower: less than 5% of the population have received a first dose. Fortunately, this month the US said it would send 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico.


What else is there to see in Latin America? You mentioned Chile. Shouldn’t it be one of the positive stories now?

That’s right, Chile’s vaccination rate is higher than the US’s. But last Friday it recorded the highest daily number of COVID cases since the pandemic began, and the country had to be locked again. Chile should hold a big election next month to create an assembly to draft a new national constitution. but now they had to postpone it until May. That’s a lesson for the rest of us – that even having a successful vaccination doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see fluctuations for a while.

Esteban Felix

An elderly man received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine two months ago in Santiago, Chile, the country with the highest vaccination rate to date in Latin America.

Elsewhere in Latin America you have to watch every country that borders the Brazilian Amazon region – for example Peru, Colombia, Venezuela – because the COVID variant P.1, which I talked about earlier, is spreading quickly. Suddenly there are twice as many new COVID cases per day in Colombia as at the beginning of this month.

This week is known as Semana Santa or Christian Holy Week in Spanish and Portuguese. And health officials in Latin America fear it could be a super-spreader moment?

You bet. Because of this, Peru was banned again this week. This week is essentially Latin America’s spring break – and people like to gather at beaches, rural retreats, and religious events like Good Friday processions.

Last year there were almost twice as many new COVID cases in Brazil during Semana Santa as the week before. So, if you have family or friends in Latin America, you might want to give them a call this week and remind them.

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