As global cases climb, Latin America readies for coronavirus response

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Peruvian researchers preparing to implement diagnosis of COVID-19. Photo by: Ministerio Cultura / Latin America News Agency via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Public health organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean are working with national health departments and other stakeholders to prepare the region for a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus, officially named COVID-19.

“We are comparatively stronger than other parts of the world. … But we can’t let the guard down.”

— Jono Anzalone, head of emergency operations for the Americas, IFRC

Officials have confirmed 15 cases in the U.S. and eight in Canada, but there have been no official cases reported so far in the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The response in Latin America and the Caribbean is led by the Pan American Health Organization, the regional arm of the World Health Organization. It is working with countries in the region to help them prepare for the rapid detection and response to potential cases of COVID-19.

“Virology experts from PAHO have been training and equipping laboratories to respond to potential imported cases,” PAHO said in a statement to Devex.

According to PAHO, by Friday the organization will have prepared 29 laboratories across the region to detect COVID-19, which first appeared in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year and has since spread to more than 75,000 people worldwide.

PAHO said that in general, health systems in Latin America and the Caribbean are better prepared to deal with an outbreak than those in some other regions of the world. The organization has worked with countries to ensure that preparedness activities such as epidemiological surveillance and capacity for laboratory testing have been strengthened since previous pandemics, such as SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the H1N1 swine flu virus.

Regional response mechanisms to complex outbreaks were also tested by the spread of the Zika virus from 2015 to 2016. But the mass migration underway in the region could complicate a response if cases of COVID-19 do spread to Latin America, said Jono Anzalone, head of emergency operations for the Americas at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Anzalone said the volume of migrants in the region could lead to IFRC’s “worst-case scenario” for coronavirus spread in Latin America. People from Africa and the Middle East have increasingly been arriving in the region, compounding existing mass migrations of Venezuelans fleeing their country and Central Americans migrating north to the U.S.

Nearly 5 million Venezuelans have spread across the region, many moving on foot. The collapse of the health system inside Venezuela also presents a large risk if the novel coronavirus is found there.

“Because of the lack of basic water and sanitation services, it would just take a couple of cases in a large metropolitan area where Venezuelans are passing through on their journey,” Anzalone said of the potential for the virus to spread throughout the region.

IFRC is coordinating its 35 national societies across the region to work with national health departments in ensuring up-to-date and factual information is being disseminated to the public. This includes public information campaigns about the importance of washing your hands as well as reducing stigmas around viruses to avoid xenophobic behaviors. On March 6, the organization will conduct a readiness exercise with its Red Cross focal points in various countries to simulate what a robust response would look like.

IFRC is also addressing specific questions from countries, such as immediate next steps if a nation does confirm a case of coronavirus. St. Lucia contacted IFRC on Feb. 11 regarding a suspected case on the Caribbean island, which doesn’t have its own testing capability.

“[The] Ministry of Health reached out immediately to the Red Cross there just to establish what are the next steps if there is a confirmed case and really to try to identify early detection basic protocols so that the Red Cross could prepare if there was a positive case on the island, what does that mean for the community, and starting to mobilize the public messaging campaigns that are necessary,” Anzalone said.

IFRC is holding weekly calls with its committees to answer questions, calm panic, and dispel myths before they have a chance to spread. Anzalone said the organization uses the calls as a “safe space” for people to raise concerns, such as a recent rumor that an upcoming wind shift in the Caribbean could spread the virus across the ocean from Africa. It also seeks to clarify “hysteria” over face masks, which Anzalone said are essential for front-line health workers but are not necessary for the general public at this time.

PAHO is also conducting briefings with clinical experts in Latin America and the Caribbean to share case information on COVID-19 and ensure that data collection is standardized and that countries are trained on how to detect, prevent, respond to, and control the virus.

PAHO is sending supplies and equipment so that health workers in the region are protected. The organization is working closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Caribbean Public Health Agency, and the Institut Pasteur network.

IFRC is making efforts to ensure that country offices have the information they need but also that this knowledge is getting passed down to local committees and volunteers. Azalone said this operation is a “fairly well-oiled machine” given the organization’s past experience in coordinating responses to other pandemics.

It uses Facebook groups and WhatsApp messages to disseminate information to those in the field.

“Part of what’s baked into every operation is a community engagement and accountability strategy — not just on the communications side, but also engaging in the community itself. We don’t exist without the network of volunteers in the most local communities,” Anzalone said. “It’s certainly a blessing in many ways that we are comparatively stronger than other parts of the world. … But we can’t let the guard down.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.