The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the disease spreading faster than in any other part of the world. However, other news from the region has also cropped up for this week, with a tropical storm barreling through the Caribbean, and a new study challenging understandings of the South Pacific.
The ninth named storm of the 2020 hurricane season, Isaias entered the Caribbean as a tropical depression before strengthening and briefly becoming a hurricane while it battered the Bahamas. Currently downgraded back to tropical storm status, Isaias is threatening Florida and the southeastern United States. The storm reached Puerto Rico on July 29, delivering more than 10 inches of rain to the island in a 48-hour period. The trend continued as Isaias moved westward, dumping 13 inches of rain on the Dominican Republic and causing flooding on islands throughout the northern Caribbean.1 As it reached the Bahamas on July 31, officials cut the power to parts of the island nation as a preventative measure. At this time, injuries and deaths are not being reported, but as the storm moves out of the region there will be more clarity.
A scientific study proposes that Polynesian and South American peoples intermingled nearly 1000 years ago, prompting the sharing of culture and genetic identity between the indigenous peoples of the two regions. Published in Nature in early July, a study argues that Polynesians and Native Americans made contact approximately 800 years ago, around the year 1200.2 Researchers sampled the genes of modern peoples living across the Pacific and along the South American coast, finding striking similarities between the genomes of East Polynesians and indigenous tribes from the Colombia and Ecuador area—two regions separated by more than 4,000 miles of ocean. In addition to genetic intermingling, the role of the sweet potato is at the heart of this study—the food, with origins in Central or South America, is a staple of Polynesian cuisine and has similar names in Polynesian languages to some indigenous American languages.3 There is still much to be learned about the interaction between these groups, such as who journeyed where and why, but this study does propose a sharper link from Polynesia to South America.
As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, Latin America remains a hotspot for the viral pandemic. Recent data released by the World Health Organization shows that more than a quarter of COVID-19 infections and nearly a third of deaths from the virus have occurred in Latin America, where positive cases continue to balloon. Driven mostly by large infected populations in Brazil and Mexico, the region is home to 8% of the world’s population, but 26% of the world’s positive tests and 29% of deaths from the virus.4 Mexico is the latest country to dominate COVID-19 headlines, surpassing the United Kingdom as the nation with the third-most deaths, behind the United States and Brazil. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has resisted the idea of wearing a mask, spurned the enforcement of social distancing, and criticized media coverage of his handling of the pandemic. On August 1, he compared the coronavirus pandemic to his country’s fight against corruption, stating that only when corruption was no longer a problem would he “put on a mask and…stop talking.”5 Experts believe that downplaying of the pandemic’s severity and politicization of best practices such as mask-wearing have contributed to the quick spread of the virus in the region. Additionally, much of Latin America continues to struggle with the pandemic as the region’s economic inequality and lack of equitable access to healthcare make the region more vulnerable to transmission.
In addition to the virus’s effect on public health systems, a multinational organization points out that COVID-19 could cause and exacerbate food shortages in the region. According to the World Food Program (WFP), the number of people facing severe food shortages could reach 16 million—or roughly three times the number of Latin American deaths from COVID-19—in coming weeks and months.6 Many of the rural areas in Latin America require a close-knit network of consumption, with local farmers selling their produce to neighbors and townspeople, but because of the pandemic there are fewer opportunities for market days and other opportunities to sell goods. This lack of business means that many people are unable to purchase the items they need to subsist, while a large number of farmers cannot buy items that they do not produce. As a result, more and more people face food shortages that could border on catastrophic, adding starvation and mass migration to compound the problems of the pandemic.
Bolivia continues to struggle with containing the coronavirus as its people look to alternative remedies, as covered in the July 20 digest. Poisonings from false cures continue to grow, and the nation also faces more COVID-19 positive tests than ever before. As a result, Bolivia’s electoral court has postponed its general election to October 18; originally scheduled for May, the election has already been pushed back once before due to coronavirus fears.7 Officials hope that the second postponement will allow COVID-19 to peak and begin to subside before elections occur. The country has faced electoral concerns since November of 2019, following a controversial election that prompted the resignation of President Evo Morales. Morales left Bolivia to live in exile in Argentina, leaving Jeanine Áñez as the country’s interim president. The transition from Morales to Áñez is deserving of its own long-form piece, but in brief, there are those who believe the transfer of power was part of a United States-backed coup to determine control of the country’s lithium deposits, as detailed in this teleSUR article. Suspicions were increased by Elon Musk’s recent “we will coup whoever we want” tweet; Musk’s company Tesla, Inc., requires large amounts of lithium for the production of electric car batteries. Regardless of the causes for Áñez’s assumption of the presidency, the latest postponement ensures that she will remain interim president through mid-October at the earliest.