Many of this week’s news items relate directly or indirectly to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Economic and public health repercussions remain important, but another newsworthy item from last week is a cartel’s strong challenge to the authority of the Mexican government.
In Brazil, COVID-19 infections have crested the two-million mark, cementing the country’s confirmed cases as second-most in the world, trailing only the United States. However, the World Health Organization contends that Brazil might have reached a turning point in its fight against the virus, which can be contained with “sustained, concerted action.” WHO Executive Director Michael Ryan stated on July 17 that the growth of COVID-19 cases in Brazil was no longer increasing exponentially and that while new cases continue to appear, the country has an opportunity to mitigate those cases. In a press conference, Ryan said, “There is a plateau, there is an opportunity here now for Brazil to push the disease down, to suppress the transmission of the virus, to take control.” The country of some 200 million people, which counts more than 75,000 fatalities from COVID-19, has registered more than a quarter of a million positive cases weekly and more than 7,000 weekly deaths for the last month or more.1 The disease’s vectors are shifting, as the hard-hit urban centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have managed to slow its spread while it wreaks havoc throughout vast rural swaths of the country. Despite the good news of the nation’s cases reaching a plateau, a sustained effort will be needed to check and eradicate COVID-19 throughout Brazil.
Brazil’s neighbor Bolivia is having its own struggles in trying to rein in COVID-19. Following a surge of cases in the country, whose medical professionals are running short on necessary resources for managing the pandemic, the Bolivian senate passed a resolution approving the use of chlorine dioxide to treat the disease.2 Chlorine dioxide is a bleaching agent sometimes sold under the name Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) or Water Purification Solution (WPS). Sellers of MMS have claimed that their product can protect against or cure such wide-ranging diagnoses as AIDS, autism, cancer, hepatitis, and influenza, among other illnesses. In recent months, those selling the product have claimed that it can prevent or cure COVID-19. However, there is little scientific backing to this claim, as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that when mixed with a citric acid (as instructed on packaging), MMS becomes a chemical that can be used as household cleaner or bleach. The FDA warns consumers not to purchase MMS or other chlorine dioxide products as ingesting the solution can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.3 Additionally, Bolivia’s own health ministry has warned against using MMS to treat COVID-19. Despite these objections, the Bolivian senate’s resolution would allow for chlorine dioxide to be available in pharmacies without a prescription and for doctors in the state health system to provide it to patients. Despite passing the senate, Bolivia’s lower house and president must also sign the resolution for it to become law.
The pandemic’s effects on economic activity in the region cannot be overstated. Colombia’s largest airport, El Dorado, is also one of the largest in Latin America. The Bogota airport recently embarked on a $2.5 billion expansion project that would more than double its annual capacity for travelers by 2050, but those plans have been scaled back following a drastic reduction in air passengers and a major economic blow to the air travel industry.4 Three of the region’s largest airlines—Latam Airlines Group SA, Avianca Holdings SA, and Grupo Aeromexico SAB—have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of the pandemic, and the travel industry’s downturn is likely to affect airports for years into the future.
More broadly, COVID-19 is related to a dismal economic outlook throughout the Latin American region. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), economic activity in the region will fall by more than 9% as a direct result of the pandemic. A recent ECLAC report projects that the region will witness a reduction of 9.1% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020.5 That figure is further broken down with projections of 9.4% in South America, 8.4% in Central America and Mexico, and 5.4% in the Caribbean. That last figure is heavily dependent upon Guyana, which is experiencing economic growth despite the pandemic; should that growth cease, the Caribbean’s projected contraction in economic activity would adjust to 7.9%. The overall projection of a 9.1% reduction in GDP would essentially reset the region to 2010’s economic levels, resulting in “a lost decade” of economic activity. Further, ECLAC projects the region’s unemployment rate to reach 13.5%, up from 8.1% in 2019. Initial projections that the region might be able to weather the pandemic have given way to the reality that COVID-19 is wrecking national and regional economies, as well.
The final news update for this week comes from Mexico, where the federal government and drug cartels have been fighting for control of the country for more than a decade. On July 17, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador visited states over which the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) claims ownership, just as CJNG released video of its members in a long convoy. CJNG is run by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, and in the video cartel members are shown with military-style uniforms and equipment.6 Observer Mike Vigil, formerly chief of international operations for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), believes that the video is the cartel’s way of saying that the CJNG, not the federal government, has authority over their region of Mexico. The CJNG has grown more brazen in flaunting the Mexican government’s dominance over the last year or more, with a June attack standing as the most obvious challenge to date. On June 26, Mexico City security head Omar García Harfuch was attacked in public but survived; the cartel was quickly named as the prime suspect in the bold attack that killed 3.7 Taken together with the June attack, last week’s video is a sign of increasing cartel activity and decreasing governmental authority in the country.