GP Insights

GP Insights # 374, 27 June 2020

A new COVID-19 hotspot: Latin America battles pandemic, leadership crisis
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
Latin America has recorded more than two million cases of COVID-19 and over 1,00,000 deaths. Brazil alone accounts for more than one million cases, second only to the US. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the region is a hotspot and an 'intense zone' for COVID-19 transmission. 

Apart from Brazil; Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Argentina and Bolivia are amongst the worst affected. These countries have reported the biggest rise in cases, while others in the region have seen a steady rise rather than exponential rise in cases. 

What is the background?
First, the pace and entrenchment of the pandemic. Transmission began on a slow note since the first case in Latin America was reported in Brazil in late February. However, the region has now become one of the most affected in the globe. For instance, Chile and Bolivia's COVID-19 cases increased to a greater level only by May and June. Since 9 June, Argentina began recording more than 1,000 cases on a daily basis. The disease began spreading rapidly at a later stage. Brazil is an exception, as has seen an exponential rise since the beginning. 

Second, failure of the leadership. Brazil and Mexico, the biggest hotspots, have failed to contain the spread of the virus. Former's reckless response to the pandemic has been criticized widely. President Bolsonaro's statements on the virus and the politics playing out in the health ministry have emerged as major challenges for the fight against the pandemic. Brazil has also been accused of pushing the neighbouring countries to the brink, by "allowing" the transmission to happen. 

What does it mean?
First, COVID-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of Latin America. It is a witness to the disastrous consequences of amalgamation of an epidemic and inequality. Recent protest movements in Latin America revolved around inequality, economics, poverty and despotic leadership. COVID-19 has definitely deepened the already existing gaps in society. It has inflicted more damage in countries like Venezuela and Haiti. Venezuela, which is already in deep trouble, has very few cases on record. But it is uncertain if those numbers reflect the actual figures. The country's economy is in shambles, and so is the healthcare system. The Colombian President has called Venezuela as a 'health time bomb' that poses a risk to the entire region. The ECOSOC and the WHO have warned a 'humanitarian catastrophe' in Haiti, where six million people live under the poverty line. 

Second, the impact of the pandemic on the indigenous communities. Latin America is home to around 500 indigenous communities, the majority of them living in the Amazon. Lack of health facilities and basic infrastructure, poverty, entry of illegal poachers and miners into the forest areas, lack of any restrictive measure in Brazil, has brought these communities to the brink of decimation. Additionally, these communities have weak immunity systems, thereby increasing the risk of contracting the virus. 

Third, the success stories. Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica among the success stories in Latin America. Though having a relatively porous border with Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay managed to contain the pandemic to a very large extent. Strict measures and timely, aggressive response from the health sector in terms of testing and tracing, enabled these countries to battle COVID-19. Similarly, Costa Rica also responded in a swift manner, involving all the departments of the government, supported by a strong healthcare system and the policy of striving towards self-sufficiency during a crisis. It was not only in terms of trade but also medical equipment that was manufactured immediately within the country.

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