South America Covid Hotspot Has Few Shots to Slow Record Deaths
Containing the pandemic is tough even for countries that boast enviable vaccination rates such as Chile and Uruguay. So spare a thought for Paraguay, that which now has one of the world’s worst outbreaks by one measure with a meager stock of vaccines and few on the way.
The landlocked country in the heart of South America managed against all odds to contain the virus during the early months of the pandemic in 2020 after it closed its borders and ordered an early lockdown. But now the sick are dying for lack of intensive care beds as the highly contagious P1 variant that began in neighboring Brazil spreads alongside public fatigue with prevention measures and vaccine shortages.
Paraguay, where Covid-19 has killed more than 8,800 people, now has the highest per capita death rate over the past 7 days with nearly 109 fatalities per 1 million people, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Uruguay, which like Paraguay shares a border with Brazil, held the position for weeks and stands in second at the moment.
Deaths and infections will probably continue to rise the next two months until the vaccination program and mobility restrictions start to bring them down, said Guillermo Sequera, who leads Paraguay’s equivalent to the Centers for Disease Control.
“What’s important isn’t so much being in the oven at the moment,” he said in a telephone interview from Asuncion. “It’s about staying in the oven for as little time as possible.”
Public anger over shortages of vaccines and Covid-19 medicine boiled over in March with days of street protests demanding the ouster of President Mario Abdo Benitez. The president narrowly avoided the start of impeachment proceedings thanks to the last minute backing of a rival faction of the ruling Colorado Party.
The arrival of more vaccines and the political establishment’s historic ability to diffuse social tensions through clientelism mean Paraguay is unlikely to suffer the violent protests that have exploded in other South American nations recently, said Luis Ortiz, a sociologist at the Social Sciences Institute of Paraguay.
“Political stability will continue and there won’t be big social convulsions,” he said.
The Abdo Benitez administration has obtained about 707,000 of the 8.9 million shots purchased or pledged as donations. That means Paraguay only has enough shots on hand to fully vaccinate 5% of its 7 million people.
So far Paraguay has administered just 304,725 shots, meaning that 3.5% of the population has received a first dose with just 0.7% considered fully inoculated, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.
Chile and Uruguay have fully covered 41% and 28% of the population with vaccines respectively and are still seeing a jump in cases.
Contracts to buy millions of shots through the World Health Organization’s Covax facility as well as deals with pharmaceutical companies in Russia and India have yet to yield meaningful deliveries.
India’s own Covid-19 crisis will probably delay shipments of the 2 million shots it bought from Bharat Biotech. Paraguay’s lack of diplomatic relations with China -- it’s one of just 15 countries that still recognize Taiwan -- means it can’t easily buy shots from vaccine makers there who have been busy supplying millions of doses to other developing countries.
Vaccine corruption has also come to light with the Health Ministry detecting about 500 cases of people who might have received shots out of turn. The scandal led Colorado Party Senator Mirta Gusinky to resign earlier this month.
Meanwhile, thousands of desperate Paraguayans with the money for airfare and hotels have joined the flood of Latin Americans flying to the U.S. to seek vaccines.
The government thinks about half of the 6,000 to 7,000 Paraguayans who flew to the U.S. this year got vaccinated, said Sequera, citing a recent survey of returning travelers.
Paraguay can still slash fatalities if it can immunize the 30% of the population over 50 and young people with preexisting health conditions that today account for about 90% of deaths, he said. The spread of the P1 variant puts herd immunity increasingly out of reach.
“It’s important to vaccinate vulnerable groups,” Sequera said. “The virus is going to continue circulating, but with a diminishing mortality.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.