The Developing Countries Winning Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

The country’s President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (with almost 100 million people) and the Indian state of Kerala (roughly the size of California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has pioneered remote learning. Two days after its lockdown, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

The Mexican Phoenix

Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) was a self-taught scholar, philosopher, composer, poet, and nun who lived in colonial Mexico (then called New Spain). She was known for her remarkable intelligence, wit, and courage to challenge opinions and speak out for her beliefs, which is why she is known by such monikers as “The Tenth Muse”, “The Phoenix of America”, or the “Mexican Phoenix”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born an illegitimate child of a Spanish captain who was absent from her life, Juana was raised mostly by her mother and maternal grandfather. As a child, she often hid in her grandfather’s chapel and read books from the adjoining library, which was forbidden to girls. She was a child prodigy, learning how to read and write Latin by age three; do financial accounting by age five; and compose a poem by age eight. By the time she was a teenager, she mastered Greek logic, knew Latin well enough to teach it to children, and even learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl.

At the age of 16, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. Her insatiable appetite for knowledge remained strong, and she even asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a boy so she could go to university. Having been forbidden from doing this, she continued to study privately. The Viceroy of Spain took interest in the precocious teen, and she was invited to a meeting of esteemed intellectuals of every background, where she managed to hold her own and answer various scientific and literary subjects unprepared. Her quick-thinking and intelligence were impressive for anyone, let alone a young woman, and she subsequently became well known through colonial Mexico (she garnered several marriage proposals, all of which she rejected).

Juana’s thirst for knowledge drove her to become a nun, wanting “no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study,” since nuns were historically given far more autonomy and leeway than they would have in society. She joined the Hieronymite Nuns specifically, a Catholic order known for its relaxed rules. Far from being stereotypically quiet and pious, she continued writing, learning, and even challenging social norms through poetry and prose (note the sheer number of books in the portrait). She touched on topics such as love, religion, and feminism, criticizing the misogyny and hypocrisy of men in both religious and secular power.

Unsurprisingly, she earned the ire of clerical and political authorities who thought she should know her place and focus on quiet prayer. In response, she wrote “Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country” if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students, remarking that such dangers “would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities.”

Juana was ultimately condemned by the Bishop of Puebla and forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity to the poor. She died a year later after contracting the plague while helping the sick. Though many of her works have not survived, her legacy as an unusually outspoken proto-feminist lives on for women in Mexico and beyond.

The Treaty of Tlatelolco

46497943_10161228587365472_3220843945760129024_nDid you know that Mexico played a leading role in keeping nuclear weapons out of the Western Hemisphere? (Outside the U.S. of course.)

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Mexican diplomat Alfonso García Robles was a driving force for an initiative to develop a framework for keeping the region nuclear-free.

Following a series of conferences with nations from all over the region, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco was drafted to prohibit and prevent the “testing, use, manufacture, production or acquisition by any means whatsoever of any nuclear weapons” and the “receipt, storage, installation, deployment and any form of possession of any nuclear weapons.” (The treaty is named after the district in Mexico City where the meetings were held.) Continue reading

The Murder Capitals of the World

The waves of migrants fleeing many Latin American countries is in no small part due to the horrifically high rate of homicide that collectively claims hundreds of thousands of lives annually.

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Source: The Wall Street Journal

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

By comparison, the U.S.–which has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world–lost 17,250 citizens to homicide in 2016. The same year, the European Union, with 28 countries totaling 513 million people, had 5,351 homicides, while China, with over 1.5 billion inhabitants, had a little over 8,600 murders. Given the amount of shock, fear, and sensationalism such comparative rare murders can elicit, imagine the amount of terror and trauma experienced by people in Central and South America.

In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.

A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.

To make matters worse, pervasive corruption has enabled much if this violence, if not colluded in it: law enforcement are known to be as abusive and exploitative as gang members, and often work in concert with organized crime; politicians or police officers who are not bought are cowed into fear, pushed out, or killed.

With little to no recourse for the violence they face, plus a lack of economic activity to boot, it is little wonder thousands are fleeing for their dear lives in droves.

Source: Wall Street Journal

America’s Role in the Migrant Crisis

As the Honduran migrant caravan makes its way through Mexico towards the United States–prompting widespread public acrimony and various threats by the administration–it is important to keep in mind the historical context fueling this seemingly sudden exodus. As Jericho explains: Continue reading

Operation PBSUCCESS

On this day in 1954, the CIA executed Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz and installed military officer Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of brutal U.S.-backed desposts who lasted until the 1990s.

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A mural celebrating Arbenz’s agrarian land reforms, which benefited over half a million peasants. 

Arbenz was only the second Guatemalan leader to be elected democratically; in 1944, a popular uprising toppled the previous U.S.-backed dictator, Jorge Ubico, paving the way for the nation’s first democratic election, which placed Juan Jose Arevalo in power. He introduced a minimum wage, near-universal suffrage, literacy programs, and a new constitution that aimed to turn Guatemala into a liberal democracy. Arbenz succeeded Arevalo in 1951, continuing his social and political reforms, including popular land policies that granted property to landless peasants.

This “Guatemalan Revolution” was disliked by the U.S., which was predisposed by the Cold War to see it — like every leftist or socially oriented movement — as communist and Soviet-backed. It did not help that Arbenz, though himself not a communist, Continue reading

Slain Hero of El Salvador’s Poor and Oppressed to Be Made Catholic Saint

As a thoroughly secular person, I do not put much stock into things like sainthood. But if anyone deserves to be given accorded a status revered by over a billion people worldwide, it is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died on this day in 1980 for standing up against a murderous (and U.S. backed) regime.

When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in 1977, the country was embroiled in bloody civil unrest resulting from decades of military misrule; the subsequent conflict would claim over 75,000 lives in a country of just 4.6 million.  Continue reading

Peru and Chile Protects Over 13 Million Acres of Wilderness Between Them

As one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries — places with a vast abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else beyond their borders — Peru is the unique heir to an incredible and precious environmental heritage. Fortunately, the government seems to have recognized this as well, announcing this past January the creation of a massive new national park for its most endangered land. As The Manual reported:

 

The Yaguas National Park is located near Peru’s border with Colombia in the northern region of Loreto. Its boundaries encompass a land mass roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna. This is due in large part to the Putumayo  River,  an Amazon River tributary that runs through the heart of the park.

From a wildlife perspective, it’s a rich, varied, and critical ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (like manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), and 500 species of birds. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a vital piece of the country’s marine ecosystem with approximately 550 fish species that represent a full two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish diversity, which is among the richest assemblages of freshwater fish on the planet.

The advent of the automobile and subsequent boom in demand for rubber are arguably more responsible for the destruction of Amazon Rainforest land than any human act in history. The park’s creation is a long time coming, and has consequently been applauded by some of the world’s most active and well-respected environmental group. The South American-based Andes Amazon Fund has already pledged $1 million toward the park’s implementation.

Beyond the environmental damage, however, there’s been a very real human toll related to the rainforest’s decline. Some 29 communities — including 1,100 people from the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua tribes — call the area home. These are direct descendants of the area’s native people who rely on the land in general, and the endemic fish population in particular, to survive. For millennia, the area has been sacred land to their ancestors.

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As deforestation encroaches on intact rainforest, Peru is taking the initiative to protect the most pristine areas of its rainforest. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Fortunately, Peru is not the only Latin American nation taking a bold and necessary approach to conservation. Though less well known for its gorgeous scenery and wilderness, neighboring Chile also has a unique environmental heritage in desperate need of protection — and to that end, the country has committed itself to forming what may be the most ambitious conservation project yet. Also from The Manual (bolding mine):

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled.

However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.

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Just a small taste of Chile’s 11 million acres of pristine wilderness

While it remains to be seen how well these countries will enforce these protection — Peru in particular is less developed and well-governed than Chile — these ambitious efforts are certainly a welcome move in the right direction.