New Covid-19 Surge Sweeps Across Latin America

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New Covid-19 Surge Sweeps Across Latin America

Mexico City has ordered nonessential businesses closed for the holiday season as a rebound in Covid-19 cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Brazil, with the second-highest number of official Covid-19 deaths after the U.S., registered record rates of new infections in recent days. Parts of Peru are seeing testing positivity rates of nearly 100%.

Latin America, with more deaths per capita during the pandemic than any other region, is suffering from a second surge of Covid-19, ending a period of several months where cases and deaths declined. The surge is particularly acute in the region’s two biggest countries, Mexico and Brazil.

Daily deaths in Brazil topped 1,000 on Thursday for the first day since September, and the country posted roughly 70,000 new daily infections on Wednesday and Thursday, a record. In Mexico, the daily death toll has doubled to about 600 a day from about 320 in mid-October.

“We urgently need to bend the curve of contagion,” said Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor, this week. Health authorities ordered the closure of nonessential businesses such as restaurants and shopping malls from Saturday until Jan. 10 across the capital and surrounding municipalities, home to some 22 million people.

Daily confirmed Covid-19 deaths, seven-day rolling average
Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE
Daily confirmed Covid-19 cases, seven-day rolling average
Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE

Cases are rising quickly in Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile, and even in Uruguay and Paraguay, two nations that had escaped relatively unharmed from the pandemic.

Uruguay, which had only about 10 daily new infections in late September, registered more than 500 a day so far this past week. President Luis Lacalle Pou said the country would close its borders to visitors during the holiday season and limit crowds and some public transport. “The world’s second wave is our first wave,” he said.

Paraguay has posted nearly 1,200 new cases a day in December compared with 150 in August, which officials say is already overwhelming hospitals in the poor, landlocked nation. Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni said the country is entering “a new, very difficult stage of the pandemic.”

Colder weather in the Northern Hemisphere is partly to blame for the uptick in cases in Mexico by forcing more people indoors. But the more important factor across the region appears to be fatigue with social-distancing measures. In Brazil, people are increasingly gathering on the beach and at parties during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

“People have completely let down their guard—they’re planning parties, traveling, and they will pay the price,” said Eliseu Waldman, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.

A Covid-19 victim was buried on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo: Ellan Lustosa/Zuma Press

Latin America, with 8% of the world’s population, has accounted for roughly a third of global Covid-19 deaths. Brazil has registered more than 184,000 deaths, second to the U.S.’s 312,000.

The true toll from the pandemic—including people who died from Covid-19 but weren’t included in countries’ official tolls—is far higher. The three countries with this year’s highest excess mortality—the number of people who have died compared with previous years—are all in Latin America: Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

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In a stark change of tone from previous months, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has urged Mexicans to stay at home for the next 10 days as Christmas festivities approach. His government is rushing to help the capital to increase hospital capacity.

Public hospitals in Mexico City were at 80% occupancy as of Thursday, the highest rate of the pandemic, according to Health Ministry data.

“I heard beds are running out, so we decided to come. But it seems it is too late,” said Adela Rayón, 42 years old, who brought her father Alfredo, 70, to Mexico City’s Hospital General, one of the largest in Latin America, but was turned away. She fought back tears as she spoke.

Many health workers are preparing for what they say will be the saddest Christmas. “This feels like a never-ending nightmare,” said Javier Hernandez, an emergency doctor at Hospital 72 of Mexico’s national health service.

The mayor of Cali, Colombia, where 90% of hospital beds are occupied, implemented a “red alert” order this week, which includes a curfew and restrictions on alcohol sales from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The port and tourism hub of Cartagena, Colombia, has barred sailors from disembarking from their ships, banned sunbathing or swimming on its Caribbean beaches and closed all nightclubs until mid-January.

Health workers collected Covid-19 tests in a national park on Colombia’s Pacific coast on Friday.

Photo: luis robayo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Claudia Lopez, mayor of Bogotá, is pleading with citizens to keep their family get-togethers virtual this year. “If you’re thinking of a family reunion, let it only be your nuclear family,” she said.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, intensive care beds for Covid-19 patients in public hospitals are at 92% capacity, city officials said. While Brazil’s seven-day average of daily deaths—at 723 on Thursday, according to Our World in Data—is still below the peak of 1,097 in late July, cases and deaths are climbing.

While many of the region’s countries have ordered vaccines, a broad vaccination campaign is many months away. Some countries such as Mexico don’t expect to have most people vaccinated until late 2021 or early 2022.

Many younger Brazilians, frustrated after months in confinement and confident they won’t end up in hospital beds, are flouting government guidelines and heading back to bars and parties. While cities have tried to impose new restrictions, with São Paulo banning establishments from serving alcohol after 8 p.m., many bars have also flouted these rules after having barely escaped bankruptcy during earlier lockdowns.

“People don’t give a damn anymore,” said Chi Yen Chang, a 33-year-old student from São Paulo, who said 12 of his friends in their 20s and 30s were planning a hedonistic trip to Rio for New Year’s Eve. While the city has canceled official events, partygoers have been organizing their own gatherings over social media.

In Peru, another country hard hit by the pandemic, the focal point for new infections right now is Piura, a northern coastal state with popular beach resorts that normally attract tourists during the holidays. The positivity rate for Covid-19 tests in some municipalities hovers close to 100%, partly due to limited testing, according to state government data.

The intensive care unit at the Cayetano Heredia Hospital in Piura, which was overwhelmed when the pandemic hit Peru in March, is once again full, said Dr. Walter Cruz, an emergency room physician. “There is an important upsurge, we are really at the beginning of a second wave,” he said.

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Write to Juan Montes at juan.montes@wsj.com and Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com

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