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What Governments In The Western Hemisphere Are Getting Right — And Wrong

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting countries all over the world, and that includes those closest to the U.S., Mexico and Canada. So now we want to check on how those two countries and others in our hemisphere are handling the coronavirus crisis. We want to know what other governments in this part of the world might be getting right or getting wrong. We have three correspondents on the line with us now - NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

Carrie, welcome.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thank you.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Philip, welcome.

REEVES: Thank you.

MARTIN: And reporter Emma Jacobs in Montreal, Canada.

Emma, welcome to you as well.

EMMA JACOBS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Carrie, I'm going to start with you because the virus really seems to be hitting Mexico, and particularly Mexico City, where you are. Could you just give us the latest on the health situation there?

KAHN: Yes. We are seeing cases climb dramatically now, and officials say this is the peak week of infection. You know, Mexico health officials have been saying it's about one month behind the U.S. in the outbreak, and so now we're supposedly right in the thick of it. Officially, there are 3,100 deaths nationwide and 31,000 cases confirmed. And like you said, here in the capital and the surrounding area is home to about 22 million people is the hotspot. Baja California in the north is another one, and the Caribbean on the Yucatan Peninsula.

But you have to keep in mind that Mexico is hardly doing any testing, and it's a big controversy here. Among the largest economies in the world, Mexico is the 15th. It has the lowest rate of testing, so take all those numbers with a grain of salt. And Mexico's notoriously underfunded public health hospitals are taking a beating now.

You know, there's protests like we've seen around the world over equipment, protective gear and things like that. But officials insist the hospitals are holding. The mayor here in Mexico City says still half of all COVID beds and ventilators are available.

But it's the death figures that - which are relatively low are really getting a lot of scrutiny. Four major international outlets yesterday published stories about how grave the undercount of the figures is, The New York Times saying in Mexico City, it could be three times as high. And Mexico's health coronavirus czar, our Dr. Fauci here - he took to Twitter to dispute those reports, and he also questioned why they all came out on the same day.

MARTIN: Wow. That's a lot to take in. The economy, of course, has been a big story in the U.S. as well as, you know, elsewhere in the world. What's been the economic fallout? Has there been? And is the Mexican government compensating people for lost income?

KAHN: Well, along with low testing, Mexico also has one of the lowest economic stimulus plans around. The president, despite being - labeling himself a leftist - and he's quite the populist - he's also ironically a staunch, austere Republican. He says he will not allow the country to go into debt. He rejects any bailouts for large businesses.

And there's a lot of pressure also from Mexican companies to open up, the Mexican companies that are in the U.S.-Canada supply chain to open up, especially in the automotive industry. Some companies say they'll open up in May, others in June. And that's been controversial, as we've seen dozens of deaths in the northern states, where workers are still working in foreign-owned factories deemed essential.

MARTIN: I want to go now to Brazil. I think, as many people know, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the severity of the crisis, being slow to react. That's also the case in Brazil. Philip Reeves, you've been telling us that President Bolsonaro has been undermining the lockdown measures other officials had put in place. Is this still the case?

REEVES: Oh, it absolutely still is the case. Yes. I mean, yesterday, Bolsonaro said he was planning to hold a barbecue for 30 people in his palace today. He has scrapped that idea. But the day before that, he walked to the Supreme Court from his palace with a bunch of business executives and a load of TV cameras attending him, and they all stood close together to lobby for social isolation rules to be restricted. He argues that broad social isolation is collapsing the economy. Yet even his own health ministry is recommending social isolation measures.

Now, what Bolsonaro's really doing is picking fights with other institutions of state - congress in particular and the Supreme Court - to pass blame onto them for the massive economic damage from this disaster in an effort to secure his political survival down the road. And he's doing this as Brazil has just registered the highest number of deaths in a 24-hour period. It now has more than 10,000 deaths.

Rio de Janeiro, where I am, you know, has a deteriorating situation. It's pretty much run out of intensive care beds. In fact, hundreds of people are on the waiting list, and some may never make it off that list because they die before they can get a bed. People are increasingly ignoring instructions to stay home, so there's talk of introducing a lockdown enforceable by fines.

And not - you know, this crisis isn't just here, either. In other cities - in Belem, Fortaleza, Sao Luis - in seven of Brazil's 26 states, the health system is close to collapse and either running out of beds or has run out of beds.

MARTIN: That's very disturbing. Let's turn to Canada now, which has registered far fewer deaths per capita than the United States. Emma Jacobs is in Montreal. Emma, I understand, though, you've had quite a few cases in Quebec Province, where you are. Tell us how the government is responding to all this.

JACOBS: Quebec is the epicenter. There are more than half the country's 4,600 deaths are in the province and really concentrated around Montreal. And the theory is, is that it has to do with spring break here. It was a little bit earlier, so people were traveling and then coming back to Canada at exactly the wrong time. And there are a lot of ties and travel between Montreal and New York City. We're the closest big Canadian city to New York. And it is really particularly ravaged the long-term care homes, which have had awful outbreaks.

The military was actually called in to help in Quebec and a little bit in Ontario as well. So over a thousand military personnel are going to be deployed in Quebec at senior facilities. And these are regular troops and people from all over the military, but led by medical military staff - you know, would normally be on bases - who are coming to lead these teams.

MARTIN: What's been the response from the government to the economic losses caused by the lockdowns?

JACOBS: So there have been really serious restrictions in place all over the country and business closures and an unemployment rate right now of 13%. And the government has basically been pumping money into the economy with different unemployment benefits and business supports. And they unveiled an emergency unemployment benefit in April. And a lot of employees worked really long hours, government employees, to get it to people, including people from other departments who were brought in to handle phone calls, help people apply.

MARTIN: Carrie Kahn, let me go back to you and ask about some of the other countries that you cover, particularly in the Caribbean. What's the situation there?

KAHN: It's very tough. Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, and its health system is no way prepared for this health emergency. So far, the cases are low, but testing is very limited there. And Central America is also very unprepared. El Salvador has taken the toughest actions with a total lockdown and housing people who break the lockdown in quarantine centers for up to 30 days.

Nicaragua's on the other spectrum there. President Daniel Ortega is not ordering anything. He's very much downplayed it. There is no safe distancing, no quarantining, practically and no testing. He says people will starve to death in this country if it's shut down and they are not allowed to work.

MARTIN: So before we let all of you go, it just sounds like dire situations really all over the world. And I know it's a hard thing to capture, but can you just give us a sense, a general sense of the mood in the countries that you're reporting in? And is there an effect in terms of people's sort of sense of the government or their support for their leaders - something that speaks to kind of a general national mood where you are? And, Carrie, why don't you just start?

KAHN: I'd say here the president, who won a landslide election in 2008, is holding his popularity. Sure, it's slipped a bit, and the economic crisis is definitely going to hurt him. But he's still popular, and he still has a strong base.

The opposition here is in shambles since that election and since the - worse since the epidemic, and they really haven't been able to rally and effectively object to any of his policies, which have been criticized a lot in the press and academic circles. He just dismisses those critics as fifis (ph) - the elites and neo-liberals who want to keep Mexico poor and corrupt.

MARTIN: Philip Reeves, what about you?

REEVES: It's Mother's Day tomorrow, and that's a big deal here. And it's going to be a very, very sad Mother's Day. A lot of people even set up some drive-ins now so you can drive through and pick up some flowers for your mom. But, you know, a lot of people are in social isolation. Obviously older people, you can't go visit them. So the mood is very grim and getting grimmer.

MARTIN: And Emma Jacobs, what about in Canada?

JACOBS: You know, perhaps what's most notable here relative to the U.S. is that it's just much less politically polarized, the response. Across the country, provincial leaders have been sounding fairly similar in coordinating with the federal government - you know, take this seriously. Follow social distancing measures. And, well, you know, we'll see how that holds. But it's a different environment.

MARTIN: That is Reporter Emma Jacobs in Montreal, NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro and NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

Thank you all so much for talking with us today.

JACOBS: You're welcome.

REEVES: You're welcome.

KAHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.