Latin America: On the Verge of an Unprecedented Turn in the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Exactly three months ago, I wrote a review of the year 2019 in Latin America with a cautious look forward to 2020. It began with the following sentence: “As the new decade begins, Latin America and the Caribbean face a continuing period of high instability and uncertainty.” Little did I know that 2020 would take such a devastating turn only days later when, on January 22, we saw the first reported case of Covid-19 in the United States. One month later, on February 26, the first case of the virus in Latin America was reported in Brazil. On March 7, the first death from the virus in Latin America was recorded in Argentina. Since then, the advance of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region has come in increasingly breathtaking form. Today, every country in the region has reported infections, and most are rapidly recording deaths. Furthermore, the widespread shortages of testing kits make any accurate assessment of the advance of the virus, as the countries of the region have competed unsuccessfully with countries of the developed world to acquire even basic emergency medical supplies, including Covid-19 testing kits. 

The ultimate extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic will advance in the Americas, as is true in much of the rest of the developing world, is to date still very unclear. Covid-19’s impact on the region could include the threat of the spread of the disease in slums and favelas and among the poorest segments of the population and some of the consequences of forced or involuntary migration during the pandemic. Another difficult and unavoidable consequence of the pandemic could be social unrest and violence, which much of the region experienced in 2019.

The Destructive Effect of Covid-19

As in the rest of the world, Covid-19 has become the singular focus of most governments of the region. In Brazil and Mexico, where populist leaders initially chose to defy the experts and refused to acknowledge the real threat, urgent efforts are finally being taken led by competent medical and scientific communities in both countries. Late action in the two largest countries of the region, and in many other countries, ultimately will carry with it a high price. 

Brazil, whose president initially called Covid-19 a “little flu” and has insisted the pandemic is overblown, has racked up the largest number both of cases of infection (17, 857) and of death (941) as of April 9, these numbers likely seriously undercount the pandemic’s impact. Mexico’s infections (3,441) and deaths (194) certainly also badly understate the numbers, while Ecuador (4, 969 confirmed cases) and Chile (6,501 confirmed cases) have also recorded high numbers of infection. Numbers throughout the rest of the region differ greatly and are widely acknowledged as low estimates given the very low level of testing being done regionally. Policy responses to the pandemic have varied greatly, with countries such as Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador taking very strict measures from very early dates, which has given the expected results of flattening these countries’ Covid-19 infection curve. 

As in the rest of the world, Latin America is facing the double threat of both a public health crisis that will very seriously challenge a badly underfunded and overstretched medical system as well as a recession of historic proportions that will hit countries with populations that were already living close to the margins of economic survival and stability. Uncertainty remains high on how quickly and in what manner Covid-19 will spread. However, it is increasingly certain that no country will avoid the steady and deadly advance of the virus without taking the dramatic social distancing, quarantine, and testing measures that have proven to be necessary everywhere to ensure at least an initial delay if not a full stop to the virus’ destruction. 

Covid-19’s impact on the Region’s Poor and Forced Migrants

The fact is that Latin America is the most unequal, the most corrupt, and the most violent region of the world, with notoriously weak institutions of state and deep levels of intervention at all levels of society by organized crime. These circumstances provide the ideal ecosystem for what could quickly develop as one of the worst experiences of contagion by the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the greatest fears laid out by regional experts is that the virus will spread into the overcrowded slums and favelas. The extremely high levels of inequality that characterize all of the region contribute to what could well be one of the regions of the world with the most dramatic impact of the epidemic.

Ecuador and Brazil are already showing early previews of how Covid-19 will inevitably find its way into some of the poorest neighborhoods of the large urban metropolises of Guayaquil and Rio de Janeiro. In Ecuador, an already overstretched medical system has been laid low by uncontrolled and uncounted accumulations of corpses in the largest city in the country, Guayaquil. Reports of similar situations in other parts of the country cannot yet even be confirmed, but what is clear is that the situation is quickly getting out of control. There are reports that organized crime groups in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, which already for many years have provided one of the most reliable social safety net structures for large expanses of Brazilian megacities, are now imposing quarantine and social distancing measures in clear recognition of the grave dangers represented by the pandemic, and in the absence of a government presence. 

In Argentina, where the federal government has greater control of slums (known as villas de miseria) than their counterparts in Brazil do in the favelas, emergency efforts to provide food and income benefits have become one of the most critical roles of the state to guarantee the lives of millions of newly unemployed and to preserve the social order. More than 11 million individuals (one-quarter of the population) have applied to receive a new one-time Emergency Family Income payment of 10,000 pesos ($170) in the coming weeks.

In the hemisphere’s poorest country, Haiti, the government has hardly been able to begin its focus on the pandemic threat, coming on top of what has been one of the worst periods in its history of instability and unrest over the past year. The first Covid-19 death in Haiti was only reported on April 5, but predictions of massive contagion sound realistic in a country where overcrowding, especially in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, will make social distancing and self-isolation completely impossible. 

The region is already suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in its history, with more than five million Venezuelans seeking refuge in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Panama, and elsewhere. In recent days there have been reports of Venezuelan refugees being forced, mostly through fear of the pandemic, to begin the long journey on foot to return to their own country where they believe they might have a better chance of surviving the pandemic. What already was an extreme situation, with tens of thousands of uncounted deaths both in Venezuela and outside the country, could now turn into a much more serious latest chapter of suffering and death. 

In all these cases, the most vulnerable populations in the region live under extremely crowded conditions. Many people live in small spaces that make self-isolation impossible and without even the basic conditions necessary for required hygiene. Frequent handwashing is not possible where clean running water is unavailable. Where millions of workers in the informal sector have been left without work and income, the threat of hunger is understandably seen as a more basic threat to life than the advance of Covid-19. 

It is what could come next that is very likely already in the minds of many leaders of the region, though few have dared to raise these concerns in any public way. Social unrest and violence in response to health and economic emergencies are real possibilities that cannot be discounted. This is especially true in a region that saw more than its share of such social convulsions during 2019, when violent protests erupted in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, among others. While 2019 was one of the most difficult years experienced in Latin America in many years, 2020 promises to be much worse. Smart and forward-thinking leaders in the region will anticipate social unrest because of the pandemic and will prepare accordingly. This is a time when almost every country in the world has been focused almost exclusively on its own difficult reality, and when international organizations are clearly overwhelmed by the prospect of multiple crises in multiple regions of the world. Governments in Latin America should be ready for social and economic conditions to deteriorate significantly in the coming weeks and months, with new and different forms of instability and uncertainty ahead for the region.

Michael A. Matera is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Michael A. Matera