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Heartbreaking Photo Shows Depth Of COVID-19 Tragedy In Argentina


Statistics can never fully capture the immensity of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to visualize the loss of 3.5 million lives. But sometimes a single image can reach into people. This week, a photograph of a young woman in Argentina went around the world, and the enormity of the loss there has become more visible. NPR South America correspondent Philip Reeves joins us now from Rio de Janeiro. Philip, thanks for being with us.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: And please tell us about this photo.

REEVES: Well, it shows a young woman called Lara Arreguiz. She's a student aged 22, and she's lying on the floor of a corridor in a hospital using her jacket as a blanket and her bag as a pillow. Lara's reportedly diabetic. She was taken to hospital with COVID, but there wasn't an IC bed for her. By the time she got one, it was too late. She died a couple of hours later.

But that image of her alone on the floor has been published all around Latin America. And it's really hit a nerve, partly 'cause she's young and looks like she could be anyone's kid, but also because the Argentine government's been saying that, yes, the COVID crisis in Argentina is bad, but at least everyone's receiving treatment, unlike some other countries in the region. This image shows that that is not so.

SIMON: We've heard so much over the past 15 months about how devastating the pandemic has been in Brazil. How do you assess how bad it's been in Argentina?

REEVES: Well, it's worse now than it has ever been. Intensive care units in big cities are close to breaking point with 95% occupancy. Yesterday, another 39,000 new cases were reported, which is just shy of the daily record, which was set on Thursday. And there were also another 560 deaths, bringing Argentina's overall COVID death toll to almost 77,000.

SIMON: Argentina's government has locked down towns and cities since the start of the pandemic. Now the big cities are locked down again. Why are cases rising?

REEVES: Well, one part of this is caused by the rapid spread of new variants, including the Brazilian and the U.K. variants. These account for 90% of new cases, according to Dr. Omar Sued, who's president of Argentina's Society of Infectiology. Sued says another reason is that restrictions have simply become harder to enforce.

OMAR SUED: The people started to not listen to the advice of the authorities because the people will stay there (ph) because the people need to work for earn some money, but also because there was a lot, a lot of confrontation, and a lot of the people got confused and doesn't know what to do.

REEVES: The confrontation he's talking about, Scott, is political. It's coming from state and city governments who are against the national government's attempts to impose restrictions because the economy's nose-diving. Just over a week ago, President Alberto Fernandez imposed a semi-lockdown, closing all but essential businesses and with a nighttime curfew. And that is now about to end.

SIMON: Of course, Phil, scientists argue that the only way of reversing the trend is with vaccines. How are vaccines progressing in Argentina?

REEVES: Well, as you know, you know, there's fierce global competition for vaccines. And like everywhere in Latin America, Argentina's having trouble getting ahold of enough of them. It's using the Russian Sputnik, Sinopharm from China and AstraZeneca. More than 20% of the population's had one dose, but scientists are saying that even after most people are eventually vaccinated, targeted restrictions will have to continue because this crisis isn't going to go away anytime soon.

SIMON: NPR's Philip Reeves, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.