Latin America: The Massive Challenge of COVID-19

By Carlos Malamud and Rogelio Núñez*

Bolsonaro & AMLO

Presidents Bolsonaro of Brazil and López Obrador of Mexico have been criticized for downplaying coronavirus concerns// Left: Palacio del Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons (modified)// Right: PresidenciaMX/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Latin America has had several advantages as the COVID-19 virus has moved in – including the chance to learn the lessons of Asia and Europe – but it faces it with fundamentally weaker tools: under-resourced health infrastructures, slowing economies dependent on declining commodity prices, comparatively little ability to increase public spending, and politically weakened governments. The WHO numbers are rising and will grow steadily owing both to accelerating infection rates and more widespread testing.

Most governments have taken strong actions, including closing borders, imposing quarantines, and closing schools, but leaders face huge challenges. In many countries, their inability for years to respond to the growing social demands of the emerging middle classes, especially regarding health care, education, and other social services, have already led to major social unrest and incumbent weakness.

  • They’re going to confront the virus with grave institutional problems, including corruption and lack of financing, and a lack of popular goodwill. The worst are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Haiti (a failed state), but Brazil and Mexico will be most deeply affected. Brazil already has a high infection rate, and Mexico’s will grow as well.
  • In Latin America’s presidential systems, most presidents have put their personal imprint on national policies. Their measures to slow the spread of the virus have faced little backlash. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have gone out of their way to appear oblivious to the scientific indicators that their countries could face catastrophe. Especially for politically vulnerable presidents – Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has a 10 percent approval rating – the virus entails great personal political risk.
  • Making things worse, regional organizations such as the South America Defense Council (part of UNASUR), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and the OAS have not yet provided effective international coordination. PAHO is sending “support teams” with unspecified mandates and no new resources. The Central American presidents have met digitally to coordinate strategies.

Failure of the early control measures could have dire health consequences. Health services are vulnerable and easily overwhelmed. The delayed arrival of the virus has given health officials time to prepare, and the best hospitals are in urban centers with greatest need. But the region has several Achilles’ heels, especially the shortage of facilities and resources.

  • “Universal coverage” is actually only “partial” in all but Costa Rica and Uruguay, according to a London School of Economics study. Some countries improved their preparedness in the wake of outbreaks of chikungunya, zika, dengue, and other contagious diseases, but most still lack the laboratories and field facilities to slow a virus of COVID-19’s scope.
  • Most seriously, many of the health systems lack the infrastructure to identify, treat, and isolate patients enough to slow the spread of such a highly contagious disease. The lack of efficient isolation facilities, coupled with shortages of trained personnel and essential supplies and equipment, leave the region – despite its short-term preparations – vulnerable to an outbreak much larger than in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Market crashes and likely recession in Asia, Europe, and the United States are causing collapse of the prices of Latin American exports and a series of profound pressures on economic growth in the region. Our colleague Federico Steinberg notes that the difference between a “soft-impact” scenario and a catastrophic one will depend on whether the virus is brought under control in the second quarter of the year.

  • Many observers believe the impact will be less severe in Latin America than Asia, but that assumes reasonable success keeping the crisis relatively short. Some decline is inevitable, however, because China, Europe, and the United States’ recovery will take time. Among the sobering predictions is that of the EU’s Director for Economic and Financial Affairs, who on March 13 said the EU and Eurozone will enter a recession this year with growth “considerably below zero,” but his reference to a good chance of a “normal” bounce back next year may be optimistic.
  • Experts expect food exports to suffer more and longer than energy and mineral exports, although the drop in oil prices to 1980s levels will squeeze Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina hard. New oil exploration in Brazil and fracking in Argentina has halted.

Most Latin American leaders are not oblivious to the trials ahead. On March 15, Colombian President Iván Duque said the virus will be “especially difficult for the Latin American countries” and “can overwhelm us.” The crisis requires the region to bring its principal comparative advantages – time and the ability to analyze the successful (and failed) tactics in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. – to bear to compensate for its structural weaknesses.

  • Latin America does not have the resources or mobilizational capacity that South Korea does to carry out a massive campaign to test and treat the population, but the region can avoid total catastrophe if it expands and maintains its drastic measures, adheres to the scientific evidence, and learns from other countries’ efforts to manage the outbreak.

March 26, 2020

* Carlos Malamud is a Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. Rogelio Núñez is a Senior Fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at El Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Estudios Latinoamericanos (IELAT), Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. This article is adapted from their recent analysis published here on the Elcano Institute website.

This post has been updated to correctly identify the President of Chile.

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