Military roadblocks, curfews: Latin America tightens coronavirus controls

Peruvian army soldiers control traffic after President Martin Vizcarra announced a State of Emergency and a two-week nationwide home-stay quarantine in Lima on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LIMA/ASUNCION/SAN SALVADOR/BOGOTA (REUTERS) - Countries around Latin America tightened restrictions on Monday (March 16) to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, with Peru deploying military personnel on the streets, Costa Rica and Colombia closing their borders and Paraguay imposing a curfew.

While the region has yet to be hit as hard as Asia or Europe, Latin American governments have moved aggressively to contain the virus that has shut down cities and international transport hubs and battered its financial markets.

Nevertheless, not all of them are moving at the same tempo.

A diplomatic tiff erupted when El Salvador's President accused Mexico - where the government has received some criticism for the speed of its response - of allowing people with the coronavirus to board a flight due to leave Mexico City for San Salvador. Mexican authorities denied that.

In Colombia, the authorities overcame frosty relations with Venezuela to start sharing information about the coronavirus with their neighbour, but said that did not amount to politically recognising the government of Mr Nicolas Maduro.

Colombian President Ivan Duque also said the country would close all of its maritime, land and river borders from Tuesday to prevent the spread of the fatal respiratory disease, with plans to keep them shut until May 30.

Mr Duque's move was followed by tougher measures from Mr Maduro, who ordered the widening of a social quarantine across the whole of Venezuela, starting on Tuesday, after the total number of cases in the country doubled to 33.

The coronavirus has been slower to reach Latin America than much of the world. Globally, over 174,100 people have been infected and nearly 6,700 have died.

In Peru, President Martin Vizcarra said leaders from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil spoke via conference call on Monday to analyse the situation and coordinate actions against the pandemic.

"We have agreed that together we are going to join forces," he told reporters at the government palace, adding that countries would look to coordinate demand for medical supplies and to calculate the economic impact on the region.

In Chile, at least six passengers from a cruise ship named the Silver Explorer were being treated in hospitals in Patagonia after disembarking and being confirmed as having the coronavirus, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

In Lima, masked military personnel blocked major roads, while police restricted the movement of people, as the country rolled out a state of enforced "social isolation".

Peru has suspended constitutional rights such as free movement and assembly, although the government has said it will guarantee the operation of supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, basic services and the transportation of merchandise.

In nearby Paraguay, which has eight cases of the respiratory disease so far, the government said it would enforce a curfew from 8pm daily to restrict crowds.

Certain people, including those doing vital work, delivering food or transportation could continue to move around, Paraguay's Interior Minister Euclides Acevedo told a news conference.

Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno said in a televised address on Monday that the Andean country would begin a curfew on Tuesday evening and shut down most normal activities with exceptions for health, safety, banking, and food production and distribution.

Panama's government said it had now reported 69 cases of the coronavirus infection, up from 55 on Sunday.

MIXED REACTIONS

A woman prays in the Church of Mary Help of Christians in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 15, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Responses to the virus have varied greatly across Latin America, home to some 640 million people. Some countries, including Mexico and Brazil, have sought to minimise public disruptions. Others such as El Salvador have gone to considerable lengths to keep the virus out.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said on Twitter he had information an Avianca flight from Mexico was due to take off with 12 coronavirus patients on board.

Avianca cancelled the flight. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said later that the authorities checked the passengers and found no evidence of the coronavirus.

The number of infections in Mexico rose to 82, from 53 a day earlier.

Venezuela entered the first day of a quarantine on Monday, imposed by President Maduro to stop the virus.

But many across the economically struggling country went out anyway, saying they could not afford not to work.

Chile cut interest rates to aid growth, while LATAM Airlines Group, South America's largest carrier, cut 90 per cent of international flights because of weak demand.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said his country, which had 155 confirmed coronavirus cases, would close its borders to foreigners starting on Wednesday.

Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado declared a state of emergency that included shutting borders, and ordered educational authorities to close study centres for a month.

Guatemala suspended all flights and banned foreigners from entering the country for two weeks, while El Salvador and Honduras were in a state of near lockdown.

Honduras suspended various constitutional rights for a week, including freedoms of movement, speech and assembly.

Fast-food chain McDonald's said on Twitter it was shutting its stores in Guatemala and El Salvador until further notice, appending a message in Spanish: "Stay at home."

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