COVID surge stirs unrest in parts of Latin America

Authorities face mounting anger in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, among other countries, as the pandemic takes its toll.

People are protesting in some Latin American countries, as anger is mounting over surging COVID-19 infections, the slow rollout of vaccines and in some cases, new lockdown measures aimed at stemming the spread of the virus.

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez announced a cabinet reshuffle on Saturday, following riots at a demonstration against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Benitez said new people would be appointed to the ministries of health, education, women’s issues, and civil affairs.

“I am sure that the men and women named will do their utmost to confront this moment of crisis that the country is enduring,” the president said.

In the capital Asuncion, security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters on Friday evening, with the protesters throwing back stones.

Protests resumed on Saturday night in Asuncion and Ciudad del Este, broadcaster ABC TV Paraguay reported, with police using water cannon to disperse demonstrators who once more responded with stones.

Paraguay has reported more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and more than 3,290 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University – but its rollout of COVID-19 vaccines among its population of just more than seven million people has been slow.

It is awaiting the arrival of four million doses from the COVAX scheme set up by the World Health Organization and one million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

So far, Paraguay has received just 4,000 doses of vaccines from Russia, intended for intensive care personnel.

‘Indiscriminate violence’

In Argentina, protests against stricter coronavirus lockdown measures were followed by a police crackdown.

Regional police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters in Formosa, a provincial capital in the country’s north, after authorities moved to close some businesses to stem a recent increase in cases.

Formosa is one of the poorest provinces in the country and has been hit hard by a recession made worse by the pandemic.

The regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the resident coordinator for the UN in Argentina said in a statement they were concerned police had employed “indiscriminate violence that resulted in people being injured and detained”.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said on its Twitter account it was concerned over reports that “police officers had used rubber pellets, tear gas and beatings against protesters and journalists”.

Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez’s chief of staff, Santiago Cafiero, said on Twitter: “The state must guarantee the free peaceful expression of citizens … violence is never the way.”

Argentina has reported more than 2.14 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 52,800 coronavirus-related deaths.

People also recently protested in the capital, Buenos Aires, over a “VIP” vaccine scandal, after reports surfaced alleging people with government connections had received COVID-19 jabs out of turn. The country’s former health minister resigned in light of the scandal.

Government officials in Peru and Ecuador have also been forced to resign in relation to the countries’ respective COVID-19 vaccination programmes.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said new infections were on the rise in Chile, as well, despite moving fast on vaccine distribution.

“For a second day the country registered more than 5,000 new cases, the highest infection rate in nine months,” he said on Saturday.

“Two-thirds of the capital Santiago is under strict lockdown, as are a number of other regions.”

Rio shutdown

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro on Thursday announced new restrictions on bars, restaurants and beaches, as it seeks to contain a surging pandemic that is pushing Brazil’s hospitals to their breaking point.

The city of 6.7 million people is the latest to go back into a partial lockdown in Brazil, which has registered record COVID-19 death tolls and is having its deadliest week of the pandemic.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continues to downplay the coronavirus, leaving cities and states to implement a patchwork of containment measures on their own.

Rio de Janeiro’s new one-week decree, which took effect on Friday, orders bars and restaurants to close at 5:00pm local time, shuts all commercial activity on the city’s famed beaches and bans night clubs, “samba circles” and other parties.

The decree also forbids people from lingering in public spaces from 11:00pm to 5:00am local time, though traffic will not be restricted.

The measures come after Sao Paulo state – Brazil’s largest with 46 million people – declared a new “code red” lockdown on Wednesday, ordering non-essential businesses closed for two weeks starting Saturday.

Brazil’s health ministry has recorded an average of more than 1,300 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past week, the worst yet for the hard-hit country of 212 million people.

Nearly 260,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, the second-highest death toll in the world, after the United States.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies