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Deadly infection on the Colombian Pacific coast: Where is the state?

Five children died last week due to an infection in Chocó; the last one only a year and a half old. The Ministry of Health confirmed the deaths in a tweet, but all the focus was on the coronavirus. Español Português

democracia Abierta
10 February 2020
A group of indigenous children in the area of Chocó, Colombia.
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"La ventana II" by Lolabe is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week, several headlines in different newspapers (El Tiempo, Vanguardia, El País), warned about the emergence of a disease not yet well identified that has killed five children in an indigenous community of the department of Chocó, on the pacific coast of Colombia. Since then, the Ministry of Health confirmed the deaths in a tweet, but all the focus was on the coronavirus.

The last child who died was barely a year and a half, and they all belonged to the wounaan indigenous community of Colombian Bajo Baudó. 185 children are being treated in a community of just 1,500 inhabitants, and no one can confirm the cause or origin of this infection. With pictures of diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory complications and fever, this possible epidemic would not bear similarities with the attention received by the coronavirus that is affecting China, and that is now spreading everywhere.

The coronavirus has already left more than 630 deaths around the world. It has been declared an international emergency by the WHO and the city of Wuhan in China, the focus of the epidemic, reacted late to isolate it, even though it built a hospital with 1,000 beds in 10 days, for a virus whose lethality is still unknown in its true dimension.

It is unimaginable that this community could build a hospital bed even in 1000 days

Meanwhile, the team sent to Bajo Baudó by the Colombian government consists of a doctor, a nurse, a bacteriologist and a vaccination team. Comparing the coronavirus with the episode in this indigenous community is obviously exaggerated.

It does not seem that there has been anything similar to the transferral from an animal virus to a human virus, which is the mutation that makes new viruses of this type so dangerous. But the epidemic outbreak is a testament to an inequality that reigns in Latin America.

It is unimaginable that this community could build a hospital bed even in 1000 days; The town does not even have a health post: the nearest is six hours away, often unreacheable. Two sick children had to be evacuated by helicopter.

The community does not even have potable water, and consumes from the rivers, without any sanitary guarantee, which could be the cause of the outbreak, and makes it even more evident that the presence of the state in these areas is almost nil.

According to the World Bank, in Colombia for every 1,000 children born, 12 die. In Mexico, this figure is 11, in Brazil 13, in Venezuela 21, and in Haiti 50. On average, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 14 out of every 1,000 children die, a rate surpassed only by Southern Africa and South Asia.

Although it is very far from truly overtaking coronavirus in scope, the appearance of an unidentified epidemic outbreak is clearly worrying

As a recent editorial in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo states, it cannot be possible that children must die in order to generate state presence, absent in hundreds of communities in Colombia and in too many other places in Latin America.

Although it is very far from truly overtaking coronavirus in scope, the appearance of an unidentified epidemic outbreak is clearly worrying. What would happen in Colombia if something similar happens to what is currently going on in China?

In the absence of establishing the origin and true scope of this possible new outbreak, this case should be an alarm signal. It should alert states about the consequences of not addressing huge existing inequalities, particularly with regards to access to basic healthcare. Universal healthcare is a duty of Latin American states, however they have so far dealt with this issue with unforgivable negligence.

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