Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
It was a strange boast from a leader who has built his reputation — or hurt it, depending on whom you ask — on underplaying the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. But it reflected the changing political atmospherics in the Americas over the pandemic and vaccines.
“Earlier this week we surpassed the U.S. in the percentage of vaccinated against COVID-19 with at least one dose,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted on Aug. 26. The former army captain, who has liberally borrowed from the political playbook of former U.S. President Donald Trump, is known for speaking falsehoods. But on this occasion, he was absolutely correct.
As recently as June, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Paraguay were all battling devastating surges in COVID-19 cases. Brazil — with the world’s second-highest death toll from the virus — registered its worst seven-day average for infections, 77,328, on June 23. All as South America battled a shortage of vaccines compared to the developed world.
At that time, the U.S. was witnessing its lowest case numbers — just above 11,000 a day on average — since March 2020, the very start of the pandemic. Vaccination rates in the U.S. were soaring, driving down infections. A summer of hope beckoned.
Now those roles are reversed. The U.S. is witnessing its worst surge in infections since January while South American nations have seen dramatic drops in case numbers, allowing them to open up ahead of what for many of those countries will be their summer. Brazil’s daily caseload is at its lowest this year. The same holds true for Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay and Paraguay. This sharp shift in fortunes holds valuable lessons for America, both as a reminder of where things went wrong for the world’s most powerful nation and a sign pointing toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
In some ways, America is today where Chile was in April and May. That South American country was a global leader in vaccinating its population again its COVID-19. By late May, it had fully inoculated more than half its citizens — a statistic the U.S. has only recently achieved. But that success spawned complacency, triggering a sharp rise in cases among unvaccinated Chileans.
A similar sense of having won the battle against COVID-19 was evident in President Joe Biden’s July 4 speech. “This year, the Fourth of July is a day of special celebration, for we are emerging from the darkness of years; a year of pandemic and isolation; a year of pain, fear and heartbreaking loss,” Biden said from the White House. “Today, all across this nation, we can say with confidence: America is coming back together.”
As with Chile, we now know that America’s celebrations were premature as the nation records more than 150,000 new daily cases based on a seven-day average. The body count from the virus in the U.S. has crossed 600,000.
Unlike Chile, America’s challenge is compounded by a second factor: vaccine hesitancy driven by a concerted campaign of misinformation and baseless conspiracy theories. Vaccine rates in the U.S. have plateaued, with nearly 40% of the population still not inoculated. That includes tens of millions of adults, half of whom — according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey last month — never plan to get a COVID-19 shot.
Here, the U.S. is in a situation similar to where Brazil seemed to be headed some months ago. Don’t forget that Bolsonaro had in December cautioned his country that his government wouldn’t be responsible if the COVID-19 vaccine turns people into crocodiles.
But both Chile and Brazil — or at least Brazilians — appear to have seen the light. Chile enforced restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in the summer while continuing to ramp up inoculations, and it worked.
In the meantime, Brazilians spoke with their feet. Millions, including several who are otherwise Bolsonaro supporters, have in recent weeks stood in long, snaking queues to receive their shots. Their president might not have had a change of heart on vaccines, but his tweet shows he’s a shrewd enough politician to have sensed the shifting winds. That is why he is now touting Brazil’s rapidly expanding vaccine rollout.
This should all be good news for the U.S. because the lessons from Brazil, Chile and their neighbors in South America are simple. By overcoming vaccine hesitancy and overconfidence, America too can escape the dark clouds hovering over it at the moment.
But will American exceptionalism give way to a humility drawn from science and the lived experience of other countries? Amid a mounting death toll, there’s some evidence that Republicans who were previously cool toward vaccines are now publicly urging supporters to take their shots. Yet prominent vaccine skeptics like leading podcaster Joe Rogan remain staunchly opposed to inoculations — even though Rogan himself recently tested positive for the virus. As many as 11 million people tune in to listen to Rogan’s podcasts, so you can imagine the influence of his anti-vax narrative.
Unlike several poorer nations, the U.S. has no shortage of vaccine doses. In fact, it has a surplus. It just needs to use them. But the window for Americans to learn from their extended neighborhood and move toward sunnier days is closing. Winter — the virus’s favorite season — is approaching. When the pandemic hit last year, it was legitimate to ask tough questions of China and of other nations that allowed the virus to spread in its initial days. Not in September 2021. If America is unable to swiftly crush its fresh COVID-19 crisis, it’ll have no one to blame but itself.