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LATIN AMERICA | 17-06-2021 17:49

Colombia's Covid death toll surges toward 100,000 as economy reopens

Colombia has the fourth-highest per-capita death rate in the world over the past week. New daily cases have topped 29,000 this month, threatening to overwhelm the health system. But large swathes of the economy are set to be reopened.

Protest-wracked Colombia is fast on track to surpass 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 as the government tries to balance letting citizens work – and eat – with protecting them from the pandemic by reopening large swathes of the economy.

A slow vaccination rollout and social upheaval have meant that infections and mortality in Colombia continue to rise. Just in the past five days, the country of 50 million has marked new records in daily deaths, registering as many as 599 fatalities on Tuesday alone. At the current rate, Colombia will hit 100,000 deaths as soon as Sunday.

Colombia has the fourth-highest per-capita death rate in the world over the past week, among more than 125 countries tracked by Bloomberg. New daily cases have topped 29,000 this month, threatening to overwhelm the health system, which is already facing shortages of supplies, including precious oxygen. Lockdowns and the closing of borders with neighboring countries failed to ease the crisis, but hobbled the economy.

Latin America has seen more than 35 million infected with the coronavirus, and more than one million reported dead. Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne said recently that this year has been worse than last for the region. She called for an urgent increase in vaccination, warning that controlling the virus will take years otherwise. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization asked wealthy nations that have pledged to donate one billion vaccine doses to prioritise Latin America.

The situation is particularly fraught in Colombia, where the proportion of those living in poverty swelled during the pandemic to more than 42 percent. Colombia’s economy suffered the deepest crash in its history last year, leaving millions no longer able to afford three meals per day, according to the national statistics agency.

Since April, the Andean nation has been roiled with weeks of anti-government protests. Set off by a plan to raise taxes on the middle class, which was later withdrawn, the demonstrations have morphed into a mass movement with a range of grievances including police brutality, corruption and inequality.

Thousands went into the streets, and clashes with security forces left more than 40 dead. There have been billions of dollars in losses after roadblocks hit supply chains and forced thousands of companies to shut, threatening to derail the fragile recovery.

Now, with mortality rising to 193.8 deaths per 100,000 people, President Iván Duque said recently that “we need to be aware that in the last weeks this situation has deteriorated, given the mass gatherings that have happened in different parts of our geography.”

To soothe the restive population, the government is reopening the economy and began easing mobility restrictions this month. Schools, universities and most businesses can operate without schedule restrictions. Cities with intensive-care-unit occupancy below 85 percent are allowed to hold sports events and concerts as long as no more than a quarter of the venue’s capacity is used.

The government is correcting an “erroneous” policy that resulted in the loss of five million jobs, of which only half have been recovered, according to Jorge Restrepo, an economics professor at Bogotá’s Javeriana University.

“This shift in the health policy is right in seeking the economy’s recovery,” he said. “Lockdowns aren’t effective, especially in an economy where the majority live hand to mouth.”

But doctors and scientists say the nation is facing the worst of the pandemic. More than 100 medical and scientific associations published a letter June 7 pointing to a health system that is overwhelmed and warned that deaths could soon reach more than 800 a day if the economy’s reopening isn’t delayed.

The population is suffering from shortages of oxygen and other medical supplies as well as health personnel, they said in the letter. Reopening the economy “will imply that the population won’t have the health care it requires,” they said.

Colombia, like many other nations in the region, has had a slow rollout of shots, with only eight percent of the population fully vaccinated, as the government struggles to hasten the pace. As of Wednesday, nearly 14 million doses of the more than 19 million that have reached the country had been administered.

Jorge Martín Rodríguez, a professor of public health policy at Javeriana University, blamed bureaucratic barriers that made it hard for people to be eligible for inoculation. But with more mass vaccination sites, some of those obstacles are being lifted, he said.

Still, ICU usage in some of the largest cities is above 95 percent, and Rodriguez is dubious about easing restrictions.

“We’re at the worst moment,” said Rodríguez. “To think that at this time, with a health system that has collapsed, we should reopen and the economy will recover? Maybe, but at what cost?”

by Andrea Jaramillo, Bloomberg

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