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For the rest of Latin America, Brazil has always been a nation apart — a huge Portuguese-speaking powerhouse and trendsetter with sexy beaches and bewitching music. These days, it’s something else entirely: a Covid-spreading threat fast becoming a kind of regional leper colony.
Leading the world in daily deaths and the source of a worrying Amazonian variant that’s more contagious and possibly deadlier, Brazil is a cause of deep anxiety for world health officials and its neighbors, who are barring their gates.
Peru has closed flights to and from the country, Uruguay is sending extra doses of vaccines to its border towns and Chile now sends anyone arriving from Brazil to special quarantine hotels. Colombia has not only banned flights in and out of Brazil but also to its own city of Leticia on the border, stranding hundreds of tourists since the end of January.
“It feels like a jail without bars,” said Gladys Cuellar, who with her husband Antonio owns Gava’s Amazonas, a fast food restaurant in Leticia.
A town of 50,000, Leticia had a death toll last year almost three times higher than the national average. It lives off tourism and most of its food and supplies come from Brazil and Peru.
“It’s a difficult decision to make,” said Julian Fernandez, director of epidemiology at Colombia’s health ministry, of the closure. While it’s virtually impossible to stop the Brazilian strain from spreading into the more populous interior of Colombia, “we are trying to reduce the volume and speed at which it enters, to give us time to advance vaccinations.”
With 50 million inhabitants, Colombia has only administered some 600,000 doses. It’s paying special attention to its Amazon belt next to Brazil, offering shots to everyone over 18 in urban areas. In the rest of the country, other than health workers, only people over 80 are getting their first jab.
Global health officials have been expressing deep alarm over the risk posed to the region by Brazil while 17 countries have banned entries from it.
Read: Brazil Passes India for Second-Highest Covid Case Toll in World
Argentina today canceled a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the Mercosur trade bloc that the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was scheduled to attend, citing the deepening health crisis in the region. The ceremony will now be held online.
The first week of March marked the worst days of the pandemic yet in Brazil, with more than 420,000 new cases and 10,000 deaths. Home to less than 3% of the world’s population, it accounts for about 10% of Covid cases and deaths.
Vaccinations are moving slowly. While some governors and mayors have imposed curfews and on rare occasions strict lockdowns, interstate travel remains fluid and international airports open. Even in places with tighter restrictions, enforcement is rare.
President Bolsonaro has long insisted that the virus is given too much attention, that masks and distancing are for “sissies,” and life must go on.
“We’re very much concerned about Brazil,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization. “And about Brazil’s neighbors — almost the whole of Latin America. That means if Brazil is not serious then it will continue to affect all the neighborhood there and beyond. So this is not just about Brazil.”
Uruguay, which closed its international borders early in the pandemic, increased patrols along its 620-mile dryland border with Brazil last year. It sent extra doses from its first shipment of 192,000 Coronavac shots to those cities. The absence of a hard border separating its biggest frontier town Rivera from Brazilian sister city, Santana do Livramento, has driven new cases there to the country’s highest in the past week due to the flow of residents and day shoppers.
“Today our main problem without a doubt is what is happening in Brazil,” Rivera Province deputy governor Jose Mazzoni said by telephone.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said this month that 10 cases of the Brazilian strain have been detected and “we have to cut transmission channels.”
Argentina is limiting flights from several countries, including Brazil.
And while Chile hasn’t gone as far as Peru and Colombia, it is requiring all passengers who’ve been in Brazil in the last 14 days to go to a “residencia sanitaria” where they will have a Covid test. If positive, the person stays. If negative, they have to do 10 days of quarantine at home.
In coming days, Colombia will carry out a “humanitarian flight” that will fly tourists stranded in Leticia back to Bogota.
Meanwhile Gladys — the restaurant owner in Leticia — is looking forward to getting vaccinated.
“We’re like Colombia’s lab mice,” she said. “We’ve been isolated and now we’ll get to see how things go with the Brazil strain.”
— With assistance by Ken Parks, Patricia Laya, Matthew Malinowski, Julia Leite, and Carolina Millan
(Updates with cancelation of Mercosur ceremony in the ninth paragraph)