Coronavirus arrived in Latin America later than in Europe, but it has taken firm hold. A quarter of global confirmed cases are in the region, and researchers have warned the death toll is likely to triple by October to nearly 400,000.
The two countries with the deadliest outbreaks share populist leaders, Brazil’s rightwing Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s leftwing Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Both helped turbocharge the outbreaks in their respective countries, playing down the threat of the virus when it first arrived – Bolsonaro continues to do so – and disdaining proven suppression measures, from mask-wearing to social distancing.
But it would be simplistic to present the coronavirus crisis sweeping across the continent as simply a fallout from populism. Infections in Peru and Chile, which have centre-right, technocratic governments, have outpaced those in Mexico.
This may be due in part to Mexico’s decision to shun widespread testing: half of all its tests come back positive, one of the highest rates in the world, suggesting that mild cases are not being investigated. In England, less than 1% of tests are now positive.
However there is no question that both Peru and Chile have a serious problem, a reminder that even countries that took the virus seriously from early on, and brought in nationwide lockdowns, have been badly hit by Covid-19.
One key reason for this is the gaping wealth gap in the world’s most unequal region, analysts say. Crowded housing and insecure work make it hard for people to distance – even when the government orders it – and underfunded, overstretched health systems potentially exacerbate the tolls.
“What you do see very clearly is the link between inequality and infection rates, in the way the coronavirus has played out,” said Ivan Briscoe, programme director for Latin America at the Crisis Group.
“In Peru, Chile and parts of Colombia, although the lockdowns were strict, and national governments were aligned behind them, economic reality meant people couldn’t conform with them as the weeks and months went by.”
The disease was brought into many countries by middle- and upper-class people returning from holidays abroad in areas where the disease was already rampant.
Poverty then facilitated and fuelled the spread of the virus, and the poor are now bearing its brunt, while the wealthy can more easily afford to isolate themselves, and seek treatment when sick.
One of the earliest cases in Brazil was emblematic of how Covid-19 arrived, and who it affected. A wealthy woman who had travelled to Italy, and felt sick enough to get a test, reportedly did not tell her housekeeper Cleonice Gonçalves of her suspicions. Days later, Gonçalves was dead.
“Income inequality in Latin America, combined with a stressed health care system, means that low-income citizens are very likely to bear the brunt of the crisis,” Linnea Sandin, associate director of the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, wrote in a recent analysis of inequality and coronavirus in the region.
“Thirty per cent of the region lives beneath the poverty line, and one in five individuals lives in a slum. Sixty per cent of Latin Americans are employed in the informal sector, many without access to employment benefits or guarantees.”
People in informal jobs are less likely to be able to work from home, or take sick leave, so many have kept working through lockdown, and sometimes through illness.
Crowded housing makes it harder for those who are able to stay at home to distance from relatives or neighbours who get infected. Many slums lack running water, making sanitation hard. Conditions like malnutrition and exposure to pollution could result in higher infection rates, Sandin said.
Inequality may not tell the whole story. While the least unequal country in the region, Uruguay, has been among the most successful in containing its outbreak, neighbouring Paraguay, which has high levels of poverty and corruption, has also managed to largely keep covid at bay.
But inequality has fuelled the pandemic, and will be exacerbated by it. The IMF warns of a sharp contraction in the regional economy, which will make those already vulnerable even more so, and any measures to support them harder to fund, and less likely to become reality.
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