Patients in a Brazil field hospital

COVID-19 patients in a Brazilian field hospital. (AP)

LatAm in Focus: How Brazil Could Slow Its Coronavirus Outbreak

By Luisa Leme

Harvard University’s Marcia Castro explains how the country, now seen as the pandemic’s epicenter, could reverse course.

If Latin America is now being described as the new coronavirus epicenter, then Brazil’s raging outbreak is arguably the top reason why. The country, which has seen two health ministers quit since it confirmed the region’s first COVID-19 case on February 26, now has over 770,000 confirmed cases and surpassed 39,600 deaths. 

It wasn’t necessarily expected that Brazil would find itself in this situation. In the past, when it came to health crises such as HIV/AIDS and Zika, the country served as an example for how to contain an epidemic’s spread. Then the Brazilian healthcare system faced the challenge of budget constraints amid the recession of recent years. But, the Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Global Health and Population Marcia Castro says, the country continues to have the tools to become a world leader to control the pandemic. “There is still time,” she says, but warns that polarization among different levels of government can only do harm. “When we have a polarized society, it’s very hard for people to decide who they should listen to.”

The answer to fix the problem lies within Brazil’s universal public health system and its community healthcare workers, she says, adding that underserved areas such as favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are trying to replicate this model from the past, given the absence of federal guidance to battle the pandemic. Castro, a demographer specialized in vector-borne infectious diseases, tells AS/COA Online’s Luisa Leme that Brazil’s community health workers could be working the same way as Massachusetts’ contact tracers, who were hired to track contact for each new diagnosed patient in the state. “Brazil has the detectives,” she explains, but adds that the country is not using or preparing these teams to handle COVID-19, despite their knowledge about overcrowded households, access to preventative measures, and at-risk individuals in the communities where they work. “The story of Brazil’s response is a story of failed leadership that has a very high cost for society, and now we are measuring this cost in the number of deaths,” she says.

"When we start reading books about this pandemic it is going to be a story about leadership."

Castro notes that each country in Latin America has its own coronavirus story but that, in general, they are not able to apply the same social isolation policies used in places such as Europe or New York. Instead, solutions in Latin America must account for large numbers of people depending on informal jobs, unequal access to housing and clean water, or the kinds of conditions that lead to—for example—the collapse of the health system in Amazonas state capital Manaus. One key, per Castro? Detecting symptoms and contact tracing of infections to avoid further waves of COVID-19 as countries start to reopen their economies.

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Luisa Leme produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at