The coronavirus was gathering lethal speed when President Trump met his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, on March 7 for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Bolsonaro had canceled trips that week to Italy, Poland and Hungary, and Brazil’s health minister had urged him to stay away from Florida, too.
But Mr. Bolsonaro insisted, eager to burnish his image as the “Trump of the Tropics.” His grinning aides posed at the president’s resort in green “Make Brazil Great Again” hats.
Twenty-two people in Mr. Bolsonaro’s delegation tested positive for the virus after returning to Brazil, yet he was not alarmed. Mr. Trump had shared a cure, Mr. Bolsonaro told advisers: a box of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, the unproven treatment that Mr. Trump was promoting as a remedy for Covid-19.
The Mar-a-Lago dinner cemented a partnership between Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro rooted in a shared disregard for the virus. But even before the dinner, the two presidents had waged an ideological campaign that would undermine Latin America’s ability to respond to the pandemic.
The two men, fierce opponents of Latin America’s leftists, took aim at Cuba’s great pride: the doctors it sends around the world. Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro drove 10,000 Cuban doctors and nurses out of impoverished areas of Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and El Salvador. Many left without being replaced, only months before the pandemic arrived.
Then, the two leaders attacked the international agency most capable of fighting the virus — the Pan-American Health Organization, or PAHO — citing its involvement with the Cuban medical program. With help from Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Trump nearly bankrupted the agency by withholding promised funding at the height of the outbreak.
And with help from Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has made hydroxychloroquine the centerpiece of Brazil’s pandemic response, despite a medical consensus that the drug is ineffective and even dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration warned in April against most uses of the drug to treat Covid-19. A month later, Mr. Trump announced after a phone call with Mr. Bolsonaro that the United States would send Brazil two million doses.
Weak health systems and overcrowded cities made Latin America inherently vulnerable. But by driving out doctors, blocking assistance, and pushing false cures, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro made a bad situation worse.
Now Latin America, with a third of the world’s deaths, has suffered more acutely from Covid-19 than any other region.
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