How Trump and Bolsonaro broke Latin America`s Covid 19 defenses

Taken from The New York Times.

A Covid-19 ward in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where the coronavirus spread explosively in the early spring.

The two presidents drove out 10,000 Cuban doctors and nurses. They defunded the region’s leading health agency. They wrongly pushed hydroxychloroquine as a cure.

By David D. Kirkpatrick and José María León Cabrera

The coronavirus was gathering lethal speed when President Trump met his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, on March 7 for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Bolsonaro had canceled trips that week to Italy, Poland and Hungary, and Brazil’s health minister had urged him to stay away from Florida, too.

But Mr. Bolsonaro insisted, eager to burnish his image as the “Trump of the Tropics.” His grinning aides posed at the president’s resort in green “Make Brazil Great Again” hats. Mr. Trump declared he was “not concerned at all” before walking Mr. Bolsonaro around the club shaking hands.

Twenty-two people in Mr. Bolsonaro’s delegation tested positive for the virus after returning to Brazil, yet he was not alarmed. Mr. Trump had shared a cure, Mr. Bolsonaro told advisers: a box of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, the unproven treatment that Mr. Trump was then promoting as a remedy for Covid-19.

“He said the trip was wonderful, that they had a great time, that life was normal at Mar-a-Lago, everything was cured, and that hydroxychloroquine was the medicine that was supposed to be used,” recalled the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was fired by Mr. Bolsonaro the next month for opposing reliance on the drug.

“From that time on, it was very hard to get him to take the science seriously.”

The Mar-a-Lago dinner, which would become infamous for spreading infection, cemented a partnership between Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro rooted in a shared disregard for the virus. But even before the dinner, the two presidents had waged an ideological campaign that would undermine Latin America’s ability to respond to Covid-19.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, center left, with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March. Mr. Trump presented Mr. Bolsonaro with hydroxychloroquine.
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, center left, with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March. Mr. Trump presented Mr. Bolsonaro with hydroxychloroquine.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Together, the two men, fierce opponents of Latin America’s leftists, took aim at Cuba’s great pride: the doctors it sends around the world. Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro drove 10,000 Cuban doctors and nurses out of impoverished areas of Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and El Salvador. Many left without being replaced only months before the pandemic arrived.

Then, the two leaders attacked the international agency most capable of fighting the virus — the Pan-American Health Organization, or PAHO — citing its involvement with the Cuban medical program. With help from Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Trump nearly bankrupted the agency by withholding promised funding at the height of the outbreak, to an extent not previously disclosed.

And with help from Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has made hydroxychloroquine the centerpiece of Brazil’s pandemic response, despite a medical consensus that the drug is ineffective and even dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration warned last April against most uses of the drug to treat Covid-19. A month later, Mr. Trump announced after a phone call with Mr. Bolsonaro that the United States would send Brazil two million doses.

Weak health systems and overcrowded cities made Latin America inherently vulnerable. But by driving out doctors, blocking assistance, and pushing false cures, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro made a bad situation worse, dismantling defenses.

Now Latin America, with a third of the world’s deaths, has suffered more acutely from Covid-19 than any other region.

The two most powerful leaders in the Americas, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro are both ardent nationalists defiant of mainstream science. Both have put economic growth and short-term politics ahead of public health warnings. Both are deeply hostile to the region’s leftist governments — especially in Cuba, a cause that helps Mr. Trump with Cuban-American voters in the swing state of Florida.

“In their zeal to get rid of the Cuban doctors, the Trump administration has punished every country in the hemisphere, and without question that has meant more Covid cases, and more Covid deaths,” said Mark L. Schneider, a former head of strategic planning for the Pan-American Health Organization who was a State Department official in the Clinton administration. “It is outrageous.”

Smaller, less powerful countries like Ecuador felt the pain. Ecuador acceded to American pressure and sent home nearly 400 Cuban health care workers shortly before the pandemic. Then the country also suffered from the Trump administration’s freeze on funding for the health organization, which hampered its ability to provide emergency supplies and technical support.

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