When I left Mexico City for Rio with my family in early March, for what was supposed to be a short vacation, Latin America had no deaths from the coronavirus.
Security personnel at Benito Juárez Airport in Mexico wore face masks. A blue and red banner warned travelers to China to wash their hands, cover their mouths and, ominously, to avoid contact with “live or dead animals.”
But Covid-19 still seemed like a relatively distant threat that had turned the lives of friends in China upside down, but it was unlikely to do the same to us. As we boarded our flight that morning, we couldn’t wait to see the Brazilian family and show our three year old son Santiago the sea.
Five months later, Latin America was rocked by a humanitarian catastrophe that will inflict years of uncertainty and misery on an already changing land.
More than 200,000 people have died since Covid-19 took over the region we flew over from Mexico to Brazil, almost completely oblivious to the coming storm.
As the epidemic escalated, our breakup in Brazil turned into one of the most exhausting and disturbing experiences of our lives. Locked in a tiny apartment in Rio, where the governor had ordered residents to stay at home, we watched with horror as the death toll in Brazil dropped from zero to nearly 100,000 in a matter of months.
“Ambulance! Am-dr-laaaance! Am-bu-laaaaance! Our son howled enthusiastically each day as paramedics in full protective gear passed our balcony toward a nearby Covid-19 field hospital, sirens blaring.
Santi had no way of understanding the largely hidden catastrophe unfolding around us. But as the days and weeks went by, and I worked on my computer trying to understand the impact of Covid on Brazil and its neighbors, the human toll became too clear.
“The authorities are just letting us die,” Eduardo Javier Barrezueta Chávez, a 33-year-old resident of Guayaquil, Ecuador, told me on WhatsApp in early April from his living room, where he sat with the rotting remains of his. dad.
A few days later, I spoke to Gilson de Freitas, whose mother had just been sent to a mass grave in the Brazilian city of Manaus. “This is madness, just madness,” he told me as the city’s health and funeral services collapsed. “What are our lives worth now?” Nothing. “
Technology was an indispensable ally as I began to report the coronavirus crisis in Latin America while trapped in quarantine in Rio.
Using WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, and Twitter, I tracked down and interviewed bereaved Brazilian families, Mexican doctors, and Venezuelan politicians – all from the relative comfort of my son’s cramped bedroom in our temporary home.
In mid-April, I sat in front of my laptop to speak to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself a refugee in São Paulo, who warned that the country’s current leader, Jair Bolsonaro, “Drove citizens to the slaughterhouse” with his reckless Covid response.
Lula was right. On the day we spoke, the confirmed death toll in Brazil was only 1,952. As of this writing – four months later – it has risen to over 100,000, the second highest number. highest in the world after the United States. Back in Mexico, the situation was also deteriorating, despite claims by its populist president that the virus had been “tamed”. More than 50,000 Mexicans have now died from Covid-19 – the third worst toll.
From the start, we knew that giving those stats names and faces had to be a priority.
We have reported the life and death of a Brazilian clown, Potato, who had received seriously ill children in a hospital in Rio before dying there himself.
With Caio Barretto Briso, one of the many talented regional stringers contributing to our coverage, we remembered nurses, samba musicians and people in favelas were lost as the pandemic ravaged their country.
Autres correspondents, from Puerto Ordaz, Buenos Aires and Asunción to Bogotá, Lima, Guadalajara and La Paz, testified to the suffering the coronavirus has imposed on some of Latin America’s most vulnerable people, including Venezuelan refugees and prisoners, Mexican health workers, Colombian slum dwellers, indigenous communities in Brazil and the inhabitants of the isolated Peruvian Amazon.
The coronavirus has turned out to be an intensely political story, as well as a humanitarian story, and perhaps nowhere more than Brazil. From day one, Bolsonaro has played down the epidemic, sparking international outrage, national protests and even accusations of promoting genocide.
” So what? The far-right populist shattered as the death toll in Brazil began to rise inexorably. ” I am sorry. What do you want me to do? “
As a journalist covering the political chaos has been exhausting and confusing – a never-ending deluge of fake news and fury. As the father of a young Brazilian and British citizen, he was deeply disheartening. What hope for the South American homeland of Santi when its leader sees tens of thousands of citizens lose their lives and shrug his shoulders: “We will all die one day”?
A ray of light came in July, on one of our last nights in Rio before flights to Mexico resumed, when I launched Skype for a Friday night chat with legendary composer Caetano Veloso.
Caetano, whose music was one of the first things that attracted me to Brazil, was also depressed. He feared that the toxic political atmosphere would lead to “great violence” in his country. He feared losing his life to Covid-19 as the epidemic escalated. He was appalled by Bolsonaro’s reckless and anti-scientific response. “I think it’s sick,” said the 77-year-old musician.
Yet despite this, Caetano insisted he was “shockingly optimistic” about the future.
“Pessimism is too practical,” he said. “Everything that is going on in the world right now tells us something.”
What he tells us, none of us could tell.