Latin America fears another ‘lost decade’ as pandemic ravages region
Volatile politics, uneven healthcare and inequality enable coronavirus to wreak havoc
Relatives carry the coffin of a loved one to a section of a cemetery reserved for Covid-19 cases, in the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic means Latin America is now facing its third “lost decade” of the last half century.
This is the warning by 21 of the region’s former presidents in a recently published manifesto in which they also highlight the “latent risks” that emergency responses by governments to the pandemic could lead to “a serious deterioration of democracy”.
The document, published by two of Latin America’s leading pro-democracy organisations and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Sweden, comes as the pandemic has caused the suspension of scheduled elections and increasing tensions over quarantine efforts and the economic damage they have inflicted.
Latin America and the Caribbean have proven to be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. No other region on the planet has been harder hit. According to the World Health Organisation, it leads the world in infections and deaths from Covid-19, with more than 8.5 million people having caught the disease and more than 318,000 dying from it.
A tally by Johns Hopkins University in the United States shows that Latin America accounts for seven of the 20 countries currently most affected by Covid-19, and six of the 10 worst mortality rates.
This means about a third of all deaths from the new coronavirus have taken place in a region with less than a 10th of the planet’s population.
The pandemic has produced a variety of political responses from the region’s governments. Notoriously in Brazil and Mexico, populist presidents of right and left respectively sought to downplay the need to adopt quarantine measures to combat the virus. As a result Brazil is now nearing 140,000 deaths, the second-highest number globally after the United States, while Mexico has suffered the fourth-highest toll after India.
But even Latin American governments that moved more aggressively to counter the threat have suffered. Uruguay has won widespread praise for its success in controlling the disease. But so initially did Peru and Bolivia when they moved quickly to impose rigid lockdowns in March. They now have the two worst mortality rates among the 20 worst-affected countries. Argentina, considered an early containment success story, is now seeing a surge in infections and deaths.
This relative failure is the result of the uneven quality of healthcare systems in a region with high levels of inequality that is home to large urban populations, many living in poor housing. Also the high number of informal workers in the Latin-American economy means many families have few financial reserves to call on. Too many people were asked to quarantine in unsanitary conditions and without enough of a social safety net so as to prevent them going back out to look for work before it was safe to do so.
As a result Latin America is stumbling out of a quarantine that was insufficient to bring the pandemic under control but nevertheless left its economy battered. The region is now in the grip of its worst ever recession. The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal) is among organisations forecasting a near double-figure drop in the region’s GDP this year.
President of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Alberto Moreno warned poverty would increase across the region, and UN agencies are reporting “a historic setback in the fight against hunger” in Latin America. Alejandro Werner, Americas director at the International Monetary Fund, said the fallout could “reactivate social tensions in the whole region”.
The pandemic hit after a year of widespread social unrest and outbreaks of violence as tensions, which had built up during years of economic stagnation following the end of the post-millennium commodity boom, burst into the open. Since the start of the pandemic the region’s already volatile politics have become even more unsettled, with Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, having flirted with attempting a coup, Peru’s leader Martín Vizcarra having to fight off an effort at impeachment and Chile’s Sebastián Piñera facing pressure to quit.
Bolivia, one of the worst-hit countries, is also due to finally hold what will be a deeply polarised presidential election next month. The poll will attempt to resolve the political crisis caused by the fall of Evo Morales last year after his attempt to secure an unconstitutional fourth term as president came undone amid widespread unrest.
Meanwhile the long-running Venezuelan refugee crisis is exacerbating the pandemic along the country’s border with Colombia. An estimated 100,000 of the near five million Venezuelans who fled their country’s economic collapse under the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro have been forced to return home after the economies of neighbouring countries were hit by the pandemic.
Last week the WHO reported a tenfold increase in coronavirus cases along the border in the past two weeks.