COVID-19 In Latin America

What might happen in Latin America with weak economies, fragile public health systems, high rates of unemployment, and huge inefficiencies in the delivery of other public services, if the continent reaches a peak in the cases of coronavirus infections?

Timeline Of Outbreak

The first case of COVID-19 in Latin America was confirmed in Brazil on February 26th, and the first fatality in Argentina on March 7th. On March 18th, cases were reported in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and on the 20th in Haiti, the only country of America without reported cases until that day. As we write, on March 25th, America accounts for 31% of cases worldwide, behind Europe’s 60%. The most affected countries in Latin America, Brazil with 2,915 cases and 77 deaths, and Ecuador with 1,400 cases and 34 deaths.

What Steps Have Been Taken?

Most governments seem to understand the seriousness of the situation and are trying to avoid a crisis like that of Europe, particularly Spain and Italy. On March 11th, El Salvador was the first to close its airports to international flights. 8 days later, Peru began restricting citizen mobility. The following day, Argentina ordered mandatory isolation for all its inhabitants. The Dominican Republic ordered a curfew and Bolivia also decreed mandatory isolation, suspending its presidential elections. Colombia closed its airports to all international flights and announced a 19-day mandatory isolation. Paraguay, after a huge popular pressure, closed its airport. Uruguay has closed schools, banned public shows and closed its borders. Chile, recently declared that its capital, Santiago, was going to enter in quarantine for 7 days.

Contrary to the vast majority of Latin America, Brazil, following the lead of the United States, has refused to take drastic measures against COVID-19. Despite some local decisions, the country has adopted a vision in which the pandemic is nothing more than “hysteria”. On that same path was Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who encouraged people to go outside so the economy would not grind. Nonetheless, on March 25th, Mexico announced that community transmission of COVID-19 was occurring and thus started the application of more severe actions.

Why The Initial Hesitancy?

Although it is commonly accepted that isolation is the most effective way of slowing the rate of infections, some specificities might explain why some Latin American countries are reluctant to consider such measures. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Mexico was the centre of the global spread and its economy suffered enormously, particularly the tourism sector which represented 8% of the GDP. This spurred the country’s worst economic recession in 70 years, in which a million people lost their jobs and millions more were driven into poverty. Although the recession in Mexico was also a result of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the pandemic worsened the situation.

Public Health Is Multi-Dimensional

It is not only important to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in Latin-America, but to guarantee that in doing so, the poorest and most vulnerable do not aggravate their already impaired conditions. Apart from Cuba, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica, with investments of more than 6% of the GDP in their health services, the regional average is an inverted 3% in relation to GDP. Considering the fact that many health systems in Latin America are a mixture between private and public structures, wherein the former are better equipped than the latter, the health-care systems are also profoundly class-biased. With the informality of the Latin American economy, where nearly 140 million people are associated to informal sectors with low or non-existent, savings and without remote-working capacity, this is a health crisis as well as a social one.

Finally, Indigenous peoples have a greater level of vulnerability. Some of them have totally or partially self-isolated, while others have been neglected by their governments for decades, many of them with major medical afflictions. In the course of European conquest, millions perished due to inadequate immunity against diseases from Europe. The aboriginal population of America went from 14 million in 1520 to one million and a half in the eighteenth century. Today, they represent 10% of  Latin America’s population, and the first outbreaks within Indigenous comunities are being reported in Colombia and Venezuela.