The Latin American Struggle to Contain the COVID-19 Pandemic

An employee in a school in Manaus, Brazil takes the temperature of students entering the classroom on September 14, 2020
Cover Photo: International Monetary Fund, 2020

By JULIETTE LAFFONT,
2nd-year Student in the Euro-North American program at the Campus of REIMS


Although Latin America has been one of the last continents to feel the full effect of the pandemic, the way it was and still is hit by COVID-19 is far from being the least violent. With more than 6 million cases and 230.000 deaths as of early September, Latin America has become the new epicenter of the pandemic.

If we go back to the beginning of the pandemic, it appears that starting at the end of 2019, COVID-19 rapidly spread from East Asia to Europe before reaching the Americas. The United States and Brazil are now the two most affected regions in terms of death tolls, and are among the three countries with the highest number of cases. Looking at these countries’ COVID-19 data should be done with their population sizes in mind to allow us to nuance its impact. However, the situation remains very worrisome in most Latin American countries, especially if we consider the death rates of the region. So far, 5 out of the 10 countries with the highest deaths rates per capita are in Latin America, namely Peru (2nd), Chile (5th), Bolivia (6th), Ecuador (7th) and Brazil (10th).1

In contrast to the countries that were affected by COVID-19 first, Latin America is still facing hardships to curve the “first wave”. This may in part be attributed to differences between the regions, such as those in contagion rates. In Europe, most countries took measures to enforce quarantine and ensure that social distancing guidelines were in place, which enabled a containment of the virus and translated into a flattening of the curve. This was not the case in Latin America, where although certain measures such as early lockdowns (implemented when COVID-19 cases were still few) definitely proved worthwhile in slowing the spread of the virus, they did not control the pandemic. This is the case even in countries where people have been under a military enforced quarantine for over five months, such as Colombia or Argentina. However, a few countries—like Mexico—chose not to implement binding quarantine, but only recommended it. 

In contrast to the countries that were affected by COVID-19 first, Latin America is still facing hardships to curve the “first wave”.

How can we explain that although most Latin American countries enforced a strict quarantine, the death rates remain so dramatically high? 

The underfunding of the countries’ health systems and the restricted access the population has to medical care2 is partly responsible for this (only 2.5% of the state’s budget in Peru is dedicated to healthcare for example, while the W.H.O. recommends at least 6 %), especially in a context in which a significant part of the population is already suffering from other health problems (obesity is an example and concerns almost half of Latin Americans3). The presence of these pre-existing conditions make the region all the more vulnerable to the virus. 

The vulnerability of Latin Americans to COVID-19 can also be explained by the high population density in the region’s biggest cities, which combined with high rates of poverty makes the population considerably more vulnerable, and favors the spread of the virus. 

In the same way, Latin American countries are characterized by economies built on informal work, such as street vendors, with an average of 58% of workers not having a formal contract in the region4. These workers earn their income on a day-to-day basis, thus preventing them from respecting quarantine measures, and making them all the more exposed to the virus. Moreover, women are overrepresented among those informal workers, thus resulting in a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their earnings, which are already significantly lower than those of their male counterparts. 

Little flu.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, referring to the coronavirus, Spring 2020

In addition, we can point out the absence of a supranational common response5. Despite the existence of several multilateral organizations (such as MERCOSUR, among others), which gather many interdependent Latin American countries, it seems that identifying which organization should be in charge of providing help in such a situation has proven to be difficult. Responsibility is diluted between these institutions as a consequence of their interweaving roles. The only organization which is said to have fulfilled a useful role in containing the pandemic at a regional level is the SICA (Central American System of Integration). 

Worldwide, COVID-19 has proved to be a wake up call when it comes to already existing issues such as blatant inequalities, gender violence, global warming, a lack of funding dedicated to health, or the difficulty in finding answers at a supranational or global level, and Latin America is not an exception from this trend. However, some of these issues have emerged as particularly crucial in the region. 

One of them is notably reflected in Brazil, namely the constant willingness to prioritize the economy over the populations health and wellbeing. Indeed, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro chose to prevent economic impacts regardless of human costs while minimizing the breadth of the crisis (even qualifying the virus as a “little flu”6) which proved very damaging for the population. As a consequence, he is now targeted by a judicial complaint lodged on July 26th by the International Penal Court of La Haye for “genocide and crime against humanity”, which is supported by more than sixty organizations gathering almost a million doctors. 

One resident wearing a protective face masks while another does not in a market in Manaus, Brazil
International Monetary Fund, 2020

COVID-19 also impacted the political continuity of certain Latin American governments, such as Peru for example. A new government has had to be put into place following a motion of censure voted on August 4th against the former cabinet of Pedro Cateriano, which was caused by his handling of the sanitary crisis.

Another aspect of the crisis that many have observed is a sanitary one. As pointed out by the head of the PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), Carissa Etienne, it has been found out that the propagation of the virus increases the risk tied to mosquito transmitted diseases, such as dengue or malaria, which disproportionately impact poor populations, especially indigenous communities. 

More generally, COVID-19 has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities in a region of the world which is already considered to be among the most unequal, as it has the highest level of discrepancy between the richest and poorest inhabitants. 

Nonetheless, a source of hope resides in the eventuality of a vaccine that would arise from the medical tests done in Latin America7, where significant efforts are being made in this direction. In Mexico for instance, one of the scientists at the UNAM (Universidad Autónoma de México), Edda Sciutto, is now developing her own vaccination treatment, which might constitute a way to deal with COVID-19 in the future. ▣

Sources:

1. F. Saliba, M. Delcas, A. Montoya, A. Chaparro. “L’Amérique Latine ne parvient pas à endiguer le coronavirus.” Le Monde, International, Coronavirus et Pandémie de Covid-19 (Août 2021). https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/08/14/l’amérique-latine-ne-parvient-pas-a-endiguer-le-covid-19_6048924_3210.html

2.  “Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Latin America and the Carribean.” United Nations (July 2020): 1-25. https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/sg_policy_brief_covid_lac.pdf

3. B.M. Popkin, T. Reardon. “Obesity and the food system transformation in Latin America.” Obesity reviews: an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 19, no.8 (2018): 1028-1064. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6103889/#:~:text=Overweight%20and%20obesity,-Latin%20America%20and&text=Over%20half%20of%20the%20women,over%20half%20of%20the%20men.

4. OECD-LAC.https://www.oecd.org/latin-america/events/lac-ministerial-on-social-inclusion/2020-OECD-LAC-Ministerial-Informality-and-employment-protection-during-and-beyond-COVID-19-background-note.pdf.

5. Garnier, Salomé. “Challenges to Regional Coordination in Latin America.” SciencesPo’s Political Observatory for Latin American and the Caribbean, OPALC (July 2020): 1-13. https://www.sciencespo.fr/opalc/sites/sciencespo.fr.opalc/files/Multilateral%20Responseto%20Covid-19.final.pdf

6. Picheta, Rob. “As Hospitals in Brazil Teeter on the Brink of Collapse, Bolsonaro Does Pushups with Supporters.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 May 2020, edition.cnn.com/2020/05/18/americas/brazil-coronavirus-sao-paulo-bolsonaro-rally-intl/index.html.

7. D. Brooks. “Las vacunas para el covid-19 que se están desarrollando en América Latina (además de la de AstraZeneca-Oxford).” BBC News Mundo (14/08/2020). https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-53774309

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