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Why Colombia's deadly riots are a warning sign for a continent smashed by Covid

25-year-old nurse Maria Elena Ramírez says her country is in pain.

“All we can do is scream and hope they hear us,” she told The Telegraph as she marched with thousands of others in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, last Wednesday.

As a health worker, Ms Ramírez kept her job during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, but her husband, a security guard, was sacked when he became ill with Covid-19 last November. They ended up losing their home as a result.

Like many of those marching, they feel they were abandoned by the state, and there is frustration they are now being asked to pay for the government’s response to the crisis through tax reform.

“They’ve taken so much from us, we have nothing else to lose,” said Ms Ramírez. “We have to fight back.”

As the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic begins to take hold in Latin America, those Colombians tossed back into the precarious position of poverty by the response to the crisis are defying curfews to vent their anger.

“If the people come out to protest during a pandemic, it’s because they think the government is more dangerous than the virus,” said Ms Ramírez.

Across the country demonstrators clashed with riot police during ten days of violent protests against proposals intended to close a pandemic-related economic shortfall.  In the city’s historic Plaza Bolívar, angry crowds tried to gain entry to Congress, but were held back by police and tear gas.

In many of the world’s wealthiest countries, there is cautious optimism as vaccination programmes are rolled out and a return to normality can be seen on the horizon.

But in Latin America, the crisis is taking a turn for the worse. In the past week, nearly 40 per cent of all global Covid-19 deaths occurred in the Americas.

Daily infection rates and death tolls have hit record highs in Colombia and ICU capacity is at 95 per cent. Doctors are warning the country’s health system – already on the brink – could be overwhelmed in the coming weeks a result of the protests. The mayor of Bogotá has warned residents to brace for “the worst two weeks of our lives.”

The daily tallies of the dead have also hit records in Argentina, Brazil and Peru in the last few days. Uruguay, once considered a model for keeping the coronavirus under control, now has one of the highest death rates in the world.

In total, more than 1.3 million people were infected with Covid-19 in the Americas in the last week and more than 36,000 died from Covid-related complications.

The Pan-American Health Organisation is warning that if Latin America fails to contain the virus — or if the international community fails to step in to help it — new, more dangerous variants may emerge and that could destroy efforts to contain the virus in other parts of the world.

In response to the demonstrations, Colombian President Iván Duque withdrew his plans for changes to the country’s tax system, but the unrest has not abated.  What has become a national outcry over rising poverty, unemployment and inequality has left at least 25 dead and more than a thousand injured.

Latin America has endured some of the largest economic contractions in the world as a result of the pandemic. Colombia’s economy shrank 7 per cent last year and the number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million.

“The economic progress made in the past decade across Latin America was wiped out in less than a year and this will take many years for the region to recover,” said Silvia Otero, a political scientist at Bogotá’s El Rosario University.

Latin America is already the world’s most unequal region. Last year saw another 22 million plunged back into the ranks of the poor and unable to meet basic needs.

In all, about one-third of Latin America’s roughly 600 million residents live in poverty or what the United Nations defines as extreme poverty: surviving on less than $1.90 (£1.37) a day.

“Even though there will be some bounce back, the road to recovery will be long and difficult,” said Luis López-Calva, the Latin America regional director of the UN Development Programme. “Reform will be necessary, but it needs to be inclusive and based on dialogue, and it won’t be easy,” he told The Telegraph.

The rising infections and death rates in Latin America are in part due to limited vaccine supplies. Colombia has been able to issue a first vaccine to just 7 per cent of its population, according to the University of Oxford.

Those Colombians, who can afford it, are flying to America to get vaccinated. But even in Chile, where 36 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, cases still continue to rise.

Some epidemiologists blame the P.1 variant first identified in the Brazilian city of Manaus last year. Preliminary studies indicate that P.1 is more transmissible than the initial virus, and is also associated with a higher death rate among younger patients and patients without pre-existing conditions. It can also reinfect people who have already had Covid.

“For much of the pandemic, our hospitals were filled with elderly Covid patients, many of whom had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to severe disease,” said Dr Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan-American Health Organisation in her weekly press briefing.

“But look around intensive care units across our region today. You’ll see they’re filled not only with elderly patients, but also with younger people.”

“Since healthy young people are more likely to survive, they may remain in hospitals for weeks,” she said. “As a result, countries must be prepared for surging hospital demand.”

But hospitals across the region are already overstretched.

“We simply have no more resources available,” said Dr Sergio Isaza, president of the Colombian Medical Federation. “There are difficult times ahead.”

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