THE pandemic continues unabated, Latin America now becoming the epicenter. South Asia is not too late. Countries that have not prepared themselves well for the pandemic despite sufficient warning are now paying a heavy price. Only a handful of countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam have been able to fight the virus without causing a significant number of victims. In the third week of June, Brazil, India and Mexico had more deaths per day than in the United States. More than eight million people worldwide were affected by the pandemic in mid-June, with around 440,000 deaths recorded. Even in the West, the death rate is underreported. So far, a true accounting of the mortality rate remains to be done worldwide.
In terms of infection rate, India has surpassed the UK and is now ranked fourth after Russia. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also experiencing higher infection rates. Pakistan lifted its national lockdown on May 9 and within a month, the infection rate had reached over 100,000. The government is no doubt aware that the actual numbers are much higher. According to figures released in the second week of June, at least 2,400 Pakistanis died after contracting the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has placed Pakistan on the list of the top 10 countries where the virus is in the wild.
WHO has written to the Islamabad government to strongly criticize its handling of the pandemic and the decision to lift the lockdown. The WHO has recommended the reimposition of the foreclosure, stating that the government has not met any of the criteria necessary to lift it. Experts have warned that the virus would peak in July / August and could cause more than a million deaths. Pakistan’s medical infrastructure is unable to cope with the pandemic. Very few tests are done. The mortality rate among doctors is among the highest in the region. In the first week of June, the Punjab province medical association reported that 40% of doctors working in hospitals were infected with the COVID-19 virus. There have been reports of daily attacks on medical workers by relatives of COVID-19 patients angry at the unavailability of beds or the treatment being administered.
There are only 600 beds available for intensive care patients in a city like Karachi with a population of more than 20 million.
WHO estimates that Pakistan, the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population of over 200 million, has only about 750 dedicated fans for people affected by the pandemic.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was initially reluctant to order a foreclosure, prioritizing the economy over the pandemic threatening the lives of millions of citizens. However, he was overthrown by the military establishment. Imran Khan believed that a country like Pakistan could hardly afford the luxury of a lockdown, but he and the military establishment are now on the same page. The World Bank has forecast that the country’s economy will shrink 0.2% in the next fiscal year and that more than 18 million of the country’s 74 million jobs will be lost due to the pandemic.
In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the pandemic has hit hard. As of the second week of June, Bangladesh had over 70,000 registered cases of people infected with the virus. Experts expect the numbers to double before the end of June. Test facilities are limited. In the limited tests that have been carried out, one in five people tested in the capital, Dhaka, have been found to be positive. The number of deaths due to the pandemic has not been correctly quantified according to the country’s health professionals and international agencies.
The country has the lowest ratio of hospital beds per patient in the world. More than 34 doctors have already died from the infection. The official death toll by the second week of June is around a thousand, but that figure is probably misleading. The national lockdown ordered by the government in the last week of March was lifted in the first week of June, even before the pandemic showed signs of easing. A disaster seems to be on the horizon in South Asia, countries like Nepal are also witnessing an increase in infections.
If the situation in South Asia is disastrous, Latin America is currently in a worse situation. Brazil has recorded more deaths than all countries except the United States. Most Brazilians hold their president, Jair Bolsonaro, responsible for the country’s chaos. He is the only head of state to openly oppose any restriction aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. After initially dismissing the deadly new virus as nothing more dangerous than a flu attack, he quickly turned to miracle cures.
In late March, drawing on his close ideological friend, President Donald Trump, the President of Brazil introduced chloroquine as the drug that would save Brazilian lives and end the pandemic. God is Brazilian. Chloroquine is right here, he said in early March. Since then, more than 45,000 Brazilians have died from contracting the coronavirus, and the number of deaths per day is now the highest in the world. The Brazilian Ministry of Health has proven itself in the fight against epidemics that have struck the country in the past and advocated physical removal and other safe practices from the onset of the coronavirus. Initially, Bolsonaro also supported the actions of the ministry, but suddenly took a diametrically opposite position. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Minister of Health, attributed to Bolsonaros an abrupt change of position to his priority given to economic stability rather than health.
A study by the Faculty of Medicine of Sao Paulo estimates that the number of COVID-19 infections in Brazil could be 15 times higher than the published official figures. Bolsonaro had ordered mass production of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in pharmaceutical laboratories run by the Brazilian military. Brazil had imported large quantities of raw materials for the production of drugs from India. According to epidemiologists, the country has wasted immense resources in the production of drugs that have minimal impact on the treatment or reduction of the virus. If the forecasts of the Sao Paulo medical school are correct, Brazil would have had more than five million patients at the end of May.
Bolsonaro even now objects to quarantine and physical distance measures and has urged fellow citizens to continue life as usual. He refuses to wear a mask and is seen every two days mixing and shaking hands with his supporters. As death rates began to soar in early June, the President ordered the government to stop publishing comprehensive statistics on the number of deaths and the rate of infection with the coronavirus.
We are sorry for all the dead, but it is everyone’s fate, said the president when the death rate soared in the first week of June.
The Brazilian Supreme Court had to intervene and compel the Ministry of Health to continue disseminating data concerning the extent and the trajectory of the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Gilmar Mendes, a judge of the Supreme Court, described the manipulation of statistics by governments as a tactic of totalitarian regimes. He said that the trick would not ultimately lead to the government of a possible genocide.
Two prominent doctors who had been health ministers in the federal government have left office in the past two months due to unscientific presidential dictates over how to manage the epidemic. The newly appointed Minister of Health is a serving military officer without expertise in communicable diseases. He quickly published guidelines for the widespread use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat patients.
The president urged his supporters to hold public demonstrations against state governments which have imposed lockdowns and quarantine measures while discouraging the use of hydroxychloroquine. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s political son, claimed that there was a conspiracy organized by the left wing to minimize the effectiveness of the drug in the treatment of COVID-19. The goal is to demonize the drug even if they know it is effective in saving lives, he said. Damares Alves, evangelical pastor and minister for human, family and women’s rights, described hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug.
All clinical trials to date have shown the drug to be ineffective in treating coronavirus. The Bolsonaro government is indeed trying to implement a collective immunity policy with its spread of chloroquine-based drugs.
Brazilian police raided the offices and homes of right-wing supporters of Bolsonaros, who staged loud protests almost daily in major cities to demand an end to the isolation and the imposition of a military regime. As evidence of corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement accumulates against the president, his only hope for survival comes from sections of the Brazilian army. Eduardo Bolsonaro recently said that military rule is inevitable. It is no longer a question of whether but when it will happen, he said.
The president’s business buddies and political associates are suspected of funding these sections of the military. Anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations in cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are much larger and spontaneous. Public approval rates for Bolsonaros have dropped significantly after the coronavirus devastated the country.
With the health system unable to cope and the economy plummeting, there has been a growing demand for the removal of an incompetent president. Lawmakers have already filed 35 dismissals against him. The majority of them were submitted after the pandemic hit Brazil. Failure to unite Brazilians in the face of a pandemic, Bolsonaro and his government could be the first to be overthrown, said Robert Muggah, director of the Igarape Institute, a Brazilian think tank. Bolsonaro is already under investigation for corruption and electoral misconduct. The most damning accusation against him is that he poses a threat to the public health system in Brazil.
The president and his supporters, on the other hand, are calling for the dissolution of Congress and the Supreme Court and the reimposition of the military regime to deal with the growing instability. As it stands, Bolsonaro has filled his cabinet with soldiers, serving or retired. There are more soldiers in the Cabinet today than there were in the two decades the military has ruled Brazil.
Augusto Heleno, a retired general serving as the president’s national security adviser, warned of the unforeseen consequences for national stability after the Supreme Court left an investigation into the corruption of Bolsonaros supporters going from before. Bolsonaro served in the military and praised the 1964 right-wing military coup on each occasion.
He is the only democratically elected president to have virtually asked his army to organize a coup and take over. He thinks that only the military can erase the mess he has created in the country mainly thanks to his disastrous management of the pandemic.
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