Postcard from Paraguay

22 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021
Asuncion, Paraguay

Paraguay is not a well-known country. Frankly, this is justified: it has nothing much to offer tourists that can’t also be found in one or both of its giant neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. Nevertheless, the Paraguayan people are polite and kind, the food is excellent, the climate is warm (of which more later), and right now it is a far pleasanter place to be than Britain.

That latter statement is a fairly recent state of affairs. In March, Paraguay won some rare international praise for locking down hard as soon as it had registered its first two cases of COVID-19. This lockdown began to be loosened in May in the almost complete absence of both cases and deaths up until then, and was not reimposed when numbers did begin to pick up in July; although there was some typical fiddling around with local restrictions, curfews and other ineffective nonsense.

As it stands according to the data, Paraguay has plateaued at about 15 deaths ‘with’ Covid per day since August (in a country of 7.3 million people). No classical epidemic curve, just a delayed rise to what may well be the endemic state. I have not come up with a fully plausible explanation for this pattern, but I am reminded of the observation that more equatorial countries tend not to have strongly defined flu seasons, and instead have a fairly constant level of respiratory infection. Since it now seems clear that COVID-19 shows the same seasonality as influenza and other respiratory viruses, and given Paraguay is about half as close to the equator as Britain is, it makes sense that Paraguay has a plateau while Britain now has a winter Covid season.

With the reopening of Paraguay’s main airport in October, quickly followed by the removal of the country’s strict quarantine requirement in favour of the now-fashionable negative PCR test result within 72 hours of travel,* my Paraguayan husband was finally able to fly out to visit his family for Christmas in Asunción. I decided to join him, my recently acquired permanent residence luckily exempting me from an onerous entry requirement for foreigners to hold comprehensive international health insurance. Having seen the predictable renewal of Covid panic across Europe based on the equally predictable arrival of winter, we decided to postpone our return flights until spring.

The mental atmosphere in Paraguay at the moment is close to what I had hoped in vain it would be in Britain by now. That is, while there are still some restrictions, life is more or less back as it was the last time I visited in the carefree days of January 2020. People don’t talk much about Covid, they don’t obsess over numbers of cases or deaths, and nobody swerves off the pavement to walk past you. Masks are mandatory both indoors and (since December) outdoors, but compliance outdoors is reassuringly low: under the nose, under the chin and dangling off one ear are all common sights, and away from the city centre and main streets, entirely naked faces are tolerated without comment.

All retail, bars and restaurants are open, some with reduced capacity. I hear that even nightclubs are allowed to open, although only until midnight, which rather defeats the point. Almost every locale has the same elaborate entry routine: you must first wash your hands in the jerry-rigged sink by the front door, which invariably has running water and a good supply of liquid soap. You dry off with a couple of thin paper towels or an electric hand dryer of limited effectiveness. You cross the threshold, and a member of staff posted by the door sprays alcohol into your cupped hands (a sort of fusion of the two elements of the Eucharist), and points a thermometer gun at a part of your exposed flesh: often the side of the neck, sometimes the upper arm, almost never the forehead – too intimidating, perhaps.

I do wonder just how accurate these temperature guns are, especially in the sticky, subtropical Paraguayan summer, with the ambient temperature regularly creeping up close to body temperature. I got some kind of answer recently in a restaurant, which annoyingly required personal details upon entry. I snuck a peek at the “recorded temperature” column in the guestbook that was being filled, and there appeared to be quite a lot of severely hypothermic guests: 34 degrees was typical, and some as low as 32 degrees!

Why didn’t Paraguay re-enter lockdown when cases and deaths started to climb in July? Basically, it couldn’t afford to. Paraguay is still a fairly poor country with only a rudimentary welfare state, a small tax base, many small family-owned businesses (it’s a remarkably un-globalised place) and a large informal economy. After a couple of months of copying the full lockdown policies of vastly wealthier countries, for many Paraguayans it was a choice of returning to productive activity, or collapsing into poverty. Their president and health minister surely wanted to continue with the restrictions, but public pressure to reopen was strong enough to force their concession.

What’s more, everyone I speak to on the topic says the same thing: that Paraguayans won’t accept another lockdown. This may sound like hot air, to be wafted away if and when a fresh spike of infections triggers panic again. But aside from the anti-lockdown force of economic necessity, for the older generations (including my husband), enforced restrictions and curfews are disturbing echoes of the country’s long, brutal military dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner, which only ended in 1989. The echoes were particularly sharp when members of the armed, balaclava-clad, paramilitary police motorcycle unit Lince (‘Lynx’) published videos of themselves humiliating groups of young men who they had caught breaking lockdown, forcing them to do press-ups, or march and repeat boot-camp chants with their hands on their heads. Public opinion was predictably divided, with the usual contingent pleased that “covidiotas” got what they deserved; but the majority was rightly appalled by the sneering cruelty of the Lince officers.

Furthermore, Paraguayans are quite used to defending their liberty since the country’s return to democracy, with multiple attempted coups and seizures of power coming up against strong, and sometimes bloody, popular protest. Most recently, in 2017, a large group set fire to the building that houses the country’s Congress, in protest against an attempt by the president of the day to pull off a familiar trick in Latin America: circumventing his one-term limit by changing the constitution. He failed.

Back in the present, we are finally starting to see Paraguay-style popular pressure to reopen brought to bear in the rich West; notably in Italy, the pioneer of democratic lockdowns. The #IoApro movement of restaurants illegally opening en masse is tremendously encouraging. I still wonder how much more lockdown damage it will take for Britain to reach this point.

* Interestingly, the present Paraguayan entry requirements permit proof of Covid infection within the last 14 to 90 days in lieu of a recent negative PCR test result. That is, they officially recognise that infection grants immunity.