As the spread of COVID-19 captures the world’s attention, thousands of health workers in South America are quietly going about their work to try and save the lives of others in the battle against the highly infectious disease.

With the warmth of summer now dissipating and temperatures starting to drop, the situation in South America is worsening by the minute.

Winter is coming and the need for social isolation is crucial is the message being delivered by doctors and Public Service Health officials.

Helping hands

“We are working in critical conditions,” admitted Dr Juan Pablo Toledo (main picture), the medical director for Chile Rugby, who also works at a state-run hospital and at a private practice.

Normally a traumatologist, he’s had to go back to using the stethoscope as doctors have put on hold their specific fields. “It is all hands on board, so we help wherever we are needed,” he said after a long day looking after patients.

Dr Toledo admits social distancing is something that does not come naturally to Latin Americans.

“In South America, we like body contact, we are warm, we like putting our arms around those in need, and now I wear a helmet, goggles, gloves and we have to be distant.”

Although it has taken slightly more time to affect the region than other parts of the world, the curve of infection is on the up.

“People are not yet convinced of what we are heading into,” said Dr Toledo. “From the start, we ensured rugby players in our national centres would be informed and well looked after. From there, the messages were sent through regional associations to the clubs.”

The strong rugby community has behaved accordingly and there are a number of former rugby players turned doctors who are also working hard to control the outbreak.

“We are heading into colder weather and we will be inundated with more and more people. Here is where rugby teaches a lesson in never giving up, fighting the next battle,” concludes Dr Toledo.

Double challenge

As a prop who still plays at the age of 48 in golden oldies rugby, Dr Mauricio Bernard is tackling the situation with a resolve to keep on going no matter what.

Bernard is a general practitioner in the northern Argentinian town of Las Palmas, which is separated from Paraguay by the river of the same name, where the coronavirus has yet to properly take hold. Some 60kms away, though, the city of Corrientes has already had a couple of deaths.

“The city has closed its doors and people have to stay home; only essentials are allowed to move from Point A to Point B,” explained Dr Bernard, who coaches juniors at Club de Regatas de Resistencia.

The World Rugby Level 2 Educator is based in a small community hospital, where he is involved in the testing process.

“So far, they’ve come back negative. We also face another deadly epidemic, dengue, carried by mosquitoes which is highly contagious and harder to stop. We are fighting both.” 

Rugby matches here were cancelled a couple of weeks earlier than the rest of the country due to dengue and some clubs have offered their facilities to help out.

“The doctors that work in rugby clubs are all connected through Rugby Seguro (Safety in Rugby) and are ensuring the message that goes down to clubs is clear," Dr Bernard added.

Spirit of rugby

Dr Bernard believes that the spirit of rugby is present everywhere you look. “It is about looking after your mate, your family, that collective spirit that will make us fight the odds.”

Following the example of other countries, every night in Argentina, at 21:00, people applaud the efforts of the medical staff working so hard and putting their own lives at risk in the battle against COVID-19.

But Dr Bernard insists he is just doing his duty. “I am not afraid of coronavirus or dengue. I will be where I am needed, offering my knowledge. We must face this. I’ll be there until the end.”

Ángela Alzate (pictured left) plays for the Rhinos Club in the Liga Risaraldense de Rugby, some five hours drive from Colombia’s rugby hotbed of Medellín. A fiery competitor on the field, she is also tackling coronavirus head-on in the Clínica Pinares of her city.

Normally a nurse in the cancer clinic, she is helping out whenever she is needed.

“We are exposed and we know we are fighting a very harmful virus, but we can’t allow our cancer patients to be unprotected or untended. They are undergoing treatment that can’t be stopped,” says Alzate, whose sister Daniela plays in the national team.

Her message is very clear, "stay home."

Meanwhile, former Puma Alejandro Allub is a pediatric cardiologist in Córdoba and has taken to social media to send a moving message, in which he explains what people need to do to stay as safe as possible: limiting their movement and ensuring good hygiene at all times.

The second-row whose 29-cap playing career, which included an appearance at RWC 1999, came to a premature end when he suffered a mild heart attack while playing against the All Blacks, urged people to help lessen the strain on the country's medics by abiding by government advice.

“Think about us in the emergency units at hospitals. My advice is that you stay at home and only leave if it is really necessary.”