COVID-19 in Latin America: How Saints are sustaining each other amid pain, loss

When the final history of the pandemic of 2020 is written, Latin America will sadly be numbered among the regions most dramatically affected by COVID-19.

The coronavirus death toll in Latin America — a collection of nations and territories in the Western Hemisphere stretching from northern Mexico to the southern tip of Argentina and across the Caribbean — recently passed 200,000.

Meanwhile, the virus will likely weaken the populous region’s vast economy long after a vaccine is successfully developed and distributed.

COVID-19 has proven an indiscriminate disease, infecting Latin Americans from all socio-economic, political and religious backgrounds. At least six of Brazil’s top government officials have tested positive. So has Bolivia’s interim president. 

Farmworkers prepare vegetables to make handout packages of agricultural products and other basics to be donated to poor families, in the Canaa rural settlement of Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Connecting people from the countryside and the city, the group "Mutirao do Bem Viver" or Meeting for Good Living, distributes agro-ecological baskets, non-perishable food, and hygiene products to people in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Farmworkers prepare vegetables to make handout packages of agricultural products and other basics to be donated to poor families, in the Canaa rural settlement of Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Connecting people from the countryside and the city, the group “Mutirao do Bem Viver” or Meeting for Good Living, distributes agro-ecological baskets, non-perishable food, and hygiene products to people in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) Credit: AP

The pandemic’s march across Latin America is also stretching into the homes of legions of Latter-day Saints. Many members have died or are battling the illness. Others have lost jobs and businesses. Meanwhile, the day-to-day operation of the region’s wards, missions and its many temples continue to operate under social-distance restrictions dictated by COVID-19.

Several Latter-day Saints in Latin America are sharing their ongoing experience with the pandemic with the Church News.

Virus exacts heavy toll on Brazilian members

Home to almost 1.5 million members and more than 275 stakes, Brazil is one of the Church’s true powers. It is also one of COVID-19’s most active hot spots.

As public affairs director of the Brazil Area, Nei Garcia knows well the price the disease is exacting upon his South American nation. “Members of the Church in Brazil have had to adapt to circumstances imposed by COVID-19 such as physical isolation, not being able to attend Church meetings and having to work home,” he reported.

Latter-day Saint volunteers deliver hospital supplies to the Sofia Feldman Hospital in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The South American nation continues to be a coronavirus hotspot.
Latter-day Saint volunteers deliver hospital supplies to the Sofia Feldman Hospital in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The South American nation continues to be a coronavirus hotspot. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The virus, he added, has claimed the lives of almost four dozen Latter-day Saints in Brazil. “Fortunately the death rate has been low compared to the number of [national] cases.”

Members across the sprawling country continue to meet in their homes, relying upon “Come, Follow Me” and the scriptures as their primary sources of weekly gospel instruction.

Read more on power of the Book of Mormon in the pandemic: How Saints are ‘spiritually thriving’ amid challenges

Brazil is dotted with temples — and local Latter-day Saints are doing all they can to keep those beloved edifices anchored to their hearts.

“The members are trying to maintain the temple as the center point of their lives — however, they are missing the opportunity to serve in the temple,”  said Garcia. “Some members who live in cities with temples are known to drive by [the temples] just to feel close and remember their experiences in the temple.  

“Families are also engaging in family history work to keep the temple spirit alive in their homes.” 

Approximately 15,000 Latter-day Saints in the Brazil Area have lost their jobs on account of COVID-19, according to Garcia. Self-reliance is being taught and demonstrated in many congregations.

Wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, locals line up to receive handouts of produce and basic supplies, in the Sol Nascente community, on the outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Connecting people from the countryside and the city, the group "Mutirao do Bem Viver" or Meeting for Good Living, distributes agro-ecological baskets, non-perishable food, and hygiene products to people in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, locals line up to receive handouts of produce and basic supplies, in the Sol Nascente community, on the outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. Connecting people from the countryside and the city, the group “Mutirao do Bem Viver” or Meeting for Good Living, distributes agro-ecological baskets, non-perishable food, and hygiene products to people in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) Credit: AP

Brazil’s struggles continue, but there is hope and cooperation found among the Latter-day Saints.

“During this pandemic period, the Area Presidency launched the goal and challenged the Saints in Brazil and their friends to produce 3 million masks to be donated throughout Brazil,” said Gracia.

That goal, involving 317 stakes and districts across the country, was reached a short time ago.

Keeping the temple ‘at the center

Bishop Joseph Sandoval, who presides over the Puerta Verde Ward, Arequipa Central Peru Stake, sees first-hand the economic cost  COVID-19 is exacting on his congregation and community.

“There is a very large financial impact,” he reported in an email to the Church News. “Many members in my neighborhood live day by day and have been left without work, so they do not have the money to cover their needs. Many of them have families and are finding it difficult to overcome these challenges.”

Rosa Gonzales holds onto a door frame as she is tested for the new coronavirus during a house-to-house testing drive in the San Juan de Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, Peru, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Peru was the first country in Latin America to impose widespread quarantine, which began on March 16. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
Rosa Gonzales holds onto a door frame as she is tested for the new coronavirus during a house-to-house testing drive in the San Juan de Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, Peru, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Peru was the first country in Latin America to impose widespread quarantine, which began on March 16. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia) Credit: AP

Bishop Sandoval and his fellow ward members are also grieving the COVID-related deaths of a member from his ward and another from his stake.

Although the nearby Arequipa Peru Temple was dedicated less than a year ago, it is already a strength in the lives of Bishop Sandoval and his fellow ward members.

“The members are keeping the temple as the center of their lives by having a current recommend and striving to be worthy to enter the temple, even if it is not possible due to the current situation,” he said. “We are so blessed to have chapels and temples — and not being able to attend them is sad, but it helps us appreciate how important these places are.”

Valuing those things a virus cannot infect

As a Church public affairs specialist in the South American Northwest Area, Ana Lorena Ostos is frequently updated on the pain being felt across her Latter-day Saint-rich area that includes Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

 Lives and jobs have been claimed by the virus. Meanwhile, area members — renowned for their friendliness and sociableness — are required to worship and support one another from a distance.

“Restrictions require members to remain in their homes, and religious gatherings cannot be conducted in person,” reported Ostos, who lives in Lima, Peru. “Many neighborhoods carry out devotionals and other types of meetings through the internet as our members gather as families and utilize technology to study the gospel and strive together to keep the company of the Holy Spirit.”

Still, she added, hope for better days sustains many.

Bolivian public safety official Jorge Luis, left, and Elder Juan Carlos Pozo Uria, an Area Seventy, greet one another. The Church recently donated a large supply of protective equipment to be used by public safety workers in Boliva during the ongoing pandemic.
Bolivian public safety official Jorge Luis, left, and Elder Juan Carlos Pozo Uria, an Area Seventy, greet one another. The Church recently donated a large supply of protective equipment to be used by public safety workers in Boliva during the ongoing pandemic. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“Our hearts will fill with joy when we can once again safely meet  in the Church and be able to attend the temple,” she said. “Going through this experience has made us value as never before something we sometimes took for granted — being able to attend Church with our family, listen to the messages, and see and embrace our brothers and sisters and perform sacred ordinances for our ancestors and others.”

Clinging to the scriptures

The coronavirus has battered the city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras in recent weeks, impacting the lives of many local Latter-day Saints.

“Government restrictions have been tough on us,” reported Bishop Johel Rivera of the La Aldea Ward, El Carmen Honduras Stake. “Jobs have been suspended, and travel restrictions prevent us from carrying out many regular tasks and activities.”  

Still, Bishop Rivera is grateful the members of his ward have remained generally healthy — although several have tested positive for the virus and one died.

A public safety official in Bolivia unloads protective gear donated by the Church and designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A public safety official in Bolivia unloads protective gear donated by the Church and designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Gathering for weekly Sabbath services is still not possible for the La Aldea Ward members, “so to keep the spirit in our homes we cling to the teachings of the scriptures — along with daily study of ‘Come, Follow Me’ and the general conference messages of our Church leaders.”

Bishop Rivera and his many friends from his ward pray each day that they will soon be worshipping together under a common roof.

“Heavenly Father has protected our ward. … And we are looking forward to returning to the temple and once again serve and make sacred covenants.”

‘An anchor keeping me safe’

“We are living in a sea of change, but the gospel has been an anchor keeping me safe and protected,” Arami Cabrera, a Relief Society sister from Lambaré, Paraguay, told the Church News.

Each Sunday, Cabrera’s heart aches a bit knowing she will not be gathering at her local meetinghouse to worship with her friends and fellow Latter-day Saints. And there are no priesthood holders in her home who can bless the sacrament for her each week.

Meanwhile, she lost her job when the pandemic spread across her South American nation.

“But I find refuge in studying ’Come, Follow Me” and in the messages of our latter-day leaders,” she said. “I am convinced that our prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, is the Lord’s servant who was directed by Him to make changes in our gospel study so that His teachings are always available to us.”

Looking forward to future abrazos

As the elder’s quorum president of the Niza Ward, Bogotá Colombia Stake, Saul Vargas prays daily for the well-being of his quorum members and their families. 

Vargas is thankful no one within his stewardship has succumbed to COVID-19. The quorum has remained generally healthy, and he and the other members keep in frequent touch through Zoom meetings and other virtual gatherings. He’s especially pleased the Primary children in his ward are remaining connected.

Still, local restrictions have resulted in many job losses across the Niza Ward. “It will take more than a year for the economy to recover to the levels before the pandemic,” Vargas told the Church News.

An orange level warning sign about the new coronavirus hangs at a public bus station in the Kennedy area of Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Bogota's mayor closed three bus stations in the Kennedy neighborhood because COVID-19 cases are increasing here. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
An orange level warning sign about the new coronavirus hangs at a public bus station in the Kennedy area of Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Bogota’s mayor closed three bus stations in the Kennedy neighborhood because COVID-19 cases are increasing here. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara) Credit: AP

He added he is uplifted by the certainty that one day — hopefully soon — he will again share an “abrazo” with his friends from the elders quorum and serve with them inside the beloved Bogotá Colombia Temple.

“I hope that this time is helping us reflect on the things that we must understand and learn to differentiate what is really important and necessary in our lives,” he said. “I hope we are becoming better followers of Christ and perhaps less interested in social media and the things in the world.

“I hope this experience will help us understand, listen and remember what is really necessary for our salvation and what the Lord expects of us.”

Temple prep continues amid COVID-19

Ruth Rodriguez of the Nacozari Sonora Branch in Sonora, Mexico, said the ongoing pandemic has given her a “front-row” view of gospel ministering in action. She has witnessed testimonies called to action. 

“I’ve seen so many people help one another and give what little they have to their brothers and sisters.” 

Despite the virus-related restrictions, Rodriguez has made time to help her 12-year-old son, Omner, prepare to attend the Hermosillo Sonora Mexico Temple when it reopens for proxy ordinances. 

“He will be performing baptisms for the dead for the first time,” she said. “I will be happy to again embrace my brothers and sisters as we do the work together.”

Flower merchants wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus move flower arrangements in a wheelbarrow inside Mexico City's Jamaica market, Thursday, July 30, 2020. Mexico's economic activity plummeted 18.9% in the second quarter compared to the same period last year as the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic drove the country deeper into a recession. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Flower merchants wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus move flower arrangements in a wheelbarrow inside Mexico City’s Jamaica market, Thursday, July 30, 2020. Mexico’s economic activity plummeted 18.9% in the second quarter compared to the same period last year as the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic drove the country deeper into a recession. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte) Credit: AP

Gospel peace in a time of pain

Benjamin Ignacio Diaz of Santiago, Chile, mourns the loss of a few of the older members of his Grecia Ward during the ongoing pandemic. The joy of one day physically gathering again as a ward will be muted a bit by their absence. 

“Still,” he told the Church News, “it will be fantastic to be reunited again.”

Diaz and his family have incorporated music from the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square to enrich their Sunday home worship services. And their Sabbath day discussions are not about viruses and job losses. Instead, they talk of Christ and His gospel. 

“That gives us peace.”

Veronica Arriagada Arancibia, his fellow Santiaguino, said the disease has been especially difficult on the older members of her Nuñoa 2nd Ward. Ward members are lightening their burden through their daily ministering.

“They have taken it upon themselves to help all they can,” she said.