Paraguay Tries to Avoid Late Virus Surge Plaguing Neighbors

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Paraguay’s hard lockdown early in the pandemic allowed it to reopen earlier than most. But as the return to work and complacency fuel a deadly surge in cases, authorities see a bigger role for old fashioned radio and television to coax Covid-weary citizens to embrace social distancing again.

While neighbors Argentina and Bolivia also kept infections low at the outset of the pandemic, both have seen figures surge in the past month and Paraguay also borders Brazil, the world’s second-worst hit country.

“Our strategy has been mostly social media at this point,” Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni said in a telephone interview from Asuncion. “We are going to have to invest a lot more in mass communication.”

Paraguay Tries to Avoid Late Virus Surge Plaguing Neighbors

Selling social distancing to the public became a lot harder after one of Mazzoleni’s deputy ministers resigned last weekend for reportedly participating in a party. The ostentatious wedding of former President Horacio Cartes’ youngest daughter at the main cathedral of the capital Asuncion earlier this month also reinforced perceptions that Paraguay’s elites can flout the rules with impunity.

“I think those were clear mistakes,” Mazzoleni said in reference to both incidents. “We need to rebuild confidence and that will be tough.”

Paraguay still boasts one of the lowest infection and mortality rates in Latin America, but the number of cases has more than quadrupled since mid-July to over 15,000. Earlier this week, the government announced that President Mario Abdo Benitez would limit his public appearances after members of his cabinet, including the Interior Minister who is responsible for policing, tested positive for coronavirus.

The 400 to 550 new cases a day observed in the last week is unsustainable and needs to drop to no more than 500 a week, Mazzoleni said.

“We need to change our numbers in the next couple of months otherwise the system might be overwhelmed,” he said.

Paraguay’s economy is on track to post its biggest downturn in more than a decade with the central bank forecasting a contraction of 3.5% in 2020. That looks downright mild compared to the estimated 6.4% drop in economic activity for Latin America as a whole, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Limited lockdowns and social distancing are the government’s preferred tools to contain the virus going forward, with a return to the hard lockdown of March and April being reserved as a weapon of last resort, he said.

Alto Parana province on the Brazilian border has been on limited lockdown since late July due to an outbreak, while similar measures took effect in the capital and Central province Aug. 23. Mazzoleni is optimistic that cases could peak in all three jurisdictions in September or October.

In the meantime, Mazzoleni wants to lift daily test processing capacity from around 3,000 to as many as 5,000 this year. The government is also negotiating with private hospitals to use as many as 100 of their intensive care beds to complement the 509 ICU beds in public hospitals, he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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