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Peru, Venezuela Struggle As Coronavirus Cases And Deaths Rise In South America

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While the world has been focused on COVID surging in India, the virus is also on the move in South America. The death rates per capita there are among the highest in the world in all but a few South American countries, and the political situation and poverty are leaving much of the region prone to COVID's ravage. We invited two reporters based in South America to talk to us about what they're seeing. First was Dan Collyns, correspondent for The Guardian in Lima, Peru, and also Nicolle Yapur, Bloomberg reporter in Caracas, Venezuela.

Dan, I want to start with you because April was Peru's deadliest month on record. What are some of the factors that are fueling that?

DAN COLLYNS: Yes, that's correct. April was the deadliest month since the pandemic began in Peru. There are multiple factors, but I think the main factor has been the emergence of a strain from Brazil called the P.1 strain. Scientists say that it's not only more contagious but also more severe and has a higher rate of reinfection. So Peru was already really badly hit by the coronavirus...

CORNISH: Can I jump in? I just want to ask a quick question though because you said reinfection.

COLLYNS: Correct.

CORNISH: Is that also what's driving this surge?

COLLYNS: Well, it's not entirely clear, but the tech scientists have said that the P.1 strain has a higher level of reinfection. And Peru was already really badly hit by the coronavirus in 2020. And I think health officials and the government in general relaxed a little, expecting there not to be a second wave because the first wave had been so bad. And we've seen a higher level of deaths, as you mentioned. There are signs that the level of infection is getting a little less, but I think it's too early to say that we're out of the worst.

CORNISH: Nicolle, I want to talk about Venezuela because the official number of cases is listed as being low, compared to neighboring countries. How reliable are those numbers?

NICOLLE YAPUR: Yes, you are correct. The problem with the official toll is that there are not enough tests being done as to let us know the state of the pandemic in the country. So the current total is about 800 cases per day, but what we are seeing at the hospitals and our clinics is much higher. We have had a lot of deaths in homes because people are afraid to go to the hospital because the hospital is where they have problems with water. They have problems with electricity. They don't have supplies, in most of the cases, to attend to these patients. So people - they'd rather stay at home, and they die at home.

CORNISH: The health systems in Venezuela and Peru are underfunded and have been overwhelmed by COVID. The political situation in both countries has also complicated the pandemic response. Last year, Peru's president was impeached. In just one week, the country had three presidents before it settled on an interim government.

I'm going to ask you both about government response. First, in Peru, what part of the response is the government struggling with?

COLLYNS: The main issue at the moment is trying to get enough vaccines. And that political instability set back deals to get vaccines. So instead of millions of vaccines arriving in the country, they're arriving by the hundreds of thousands. And so far, Peru has only been able to inoculate about half a million key workers who were, you know, hospital workers, front line workers, including the army and the police and firefighters. And it's currently vaccinating the over-70s. So even though vaccines are arriving, it's not enough to really carry out a massive vaccine program, and that has been a major issue.

CORNISH: Daniel, can I ask one other question to follow up on this? There is a presidential election runoff on June 6. How is that playing out with this in the background?

COLLYNS: Indeed. Yeah, obviously, there's concerns, especially with health officials, about the campaigning because, of course, there are large groups of people gathering together for different - as parts of the campaign are in different parts of the country. We've got two candidates from the extreme left and from the extreme right, and so it's a very polarized election. You know, it's not clear, really, at this stage how either of these two candidates will handle the pandemic. Both say that they will get the country vaccinated by the end of the year. It's not clear how that will be managed. And I think people are relying very much on the current interim government before it leaves office to try and make sure that there's a sufficient supply of vaccines before the end of 2021.

CORNISH: Nicolle, I want to ask you the same about government response. Is there something in particular that's really been a struggle?

YAPUR: Well, yeah, particularly to impose a strict lockdown is very difficult in Venezuela because people need to go out and work. They live off what they make day by day. And the subsidies that the government is granting - it's not nearly enough to cover the basic food needs. And as Peru, one of the problems is vaccine rollout. We are at the bottom of the region in terms of vaccines.

CORNISH: The quantities of vaccines arriving from Russia and China have not been sufficient. The government is working to get more via a World Health Organization program called COVAX, and that helps defray the cost of vaccines and get them to poorer countries. But government officials don't expect them until July. Venezuela has reportedly been using membership in a state loyalty card program to help determine who gets vaccinated. The card in Spanish is called the Carnet de la Patria, which translates to the fatherland card.

YAPUR: This is a system that has been called by experts as a discriminatory system because not all Venezuelans are registered in the Carnet de la Patria. It's a system that was created for people to receive the government subsidies and money transfers, and it's a system that has been known to be used for political purposes. So people don't really trust them, and a lot of people are not in the system. So far, the government has vaccinated health care workers, teachers and a small part of the elderly population. But according to unofficial figures, only 315,000 people have been vaccinated so far. And that's only 1.3% of the population, so they're not accessible to normal people that are not in the Carnet de la Patria and are not in these three groups that I just mentioned.

CORNISH: All right. I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your time.

COLLYNS: Thank you very much, Audie.

YAPUR: Thank you so much for the invitation, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOLUTION OF STARS' "PRETENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.