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COVID-19 in Latin America: Growing Challenges in the World’s Most Unequal Region

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By Rafael R. Ioris
From Denver, Colorado

Confirming what scientists had been saying for the last several years, a new global pandemic has brought the entire world to a halt in the last three months. The rapid spreading of a new form of Coronavirus, called COVID-19, has stalled global commercial chains among countries and forced societies to find new ways to run business, educational systems, and even the very operations of political deliberation. Teleconferencing, online education, and zoom-based legislative sessions have become the new normal and no one is certain of when things can go back to the dynamic before the pandemic. Mirroring these events, Latin America has now become the epicenter of the spreading of the new virus, especially in its largest countries, Brazil[1] and Mexico,[2] where contagion rates and death tolls are on the rise.

A continent historically plagued by weak and non-democratic political institutions and entrenched huge socio-economic inequalities, Latin America’s experiences with COVID-19 have been largely defined, very much along the situation unfolding in the US, by political inability and ideological polarization. And even though there are notable exceptions, these factors have mired the region’s ability to cope with the new challenges brought up by the rapid spread of the new virus.

In a general sense, size has mattered in the ways COVID-19 infection rates have been manifested in Latin America. Several smaller countries, like Uruguay[3] and Paraguay,[4] have so far managed to almost stop contagion with rigid border controls, something which tragically hardened some nationalist feelings present across the region prior to the arrival of COVID-19. In addition to these strategies, Nicaragua[5] has had a different approach, keeping borders open so they could incentivize people to enter the country through legal points of entry and allow examinations by health authorities, something that seems to have been working well so far.

Counter-intuitively, larger countries, like Brazil, which usually possess better public health resources have fared more poorly though it is likely that things would have even been worse were it not for institutions such as its Unified System of Public Health (SUS[6]). In effect, conversely to what is happening in Argentina,[7] a country with the region’s fourth largest population and where rigid stay-at-home policies have been successfully implemented, and echoing events that also hindered the decision-making process in the US, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro at first denied the very threat posed by COVID-19 and then continued to undermine efforts promoted by their country’s important scientific, academic and public health professionals. Also in tandem with experiences of the United States, it is likely that Brazil’s federalist constitutional[8] framework helped minimize the impact of COVID-19 in some parts of the country. In particular, it has allowed some local governors to act more assertively in mandating stay-at-home policies, despite Bolsonaro’s efforts to maintain commercial activities open.

In any event, Brazil faces today its most challenging public health crisis. The country has recorded[9] at least 930,000 coronavirus cases, registered a death toll around 46,000, and displays the steepest curve of ascending cases in the world. Intensifying the regional challenges, a country where COVID-19 cases have taken a bit longer to gain momentum, Mexico now sees a rapid worsening of cases, having recorded[10] its worst week since the outbreak, both in confirmed cases (around 150,000) and deaths (around 18,000).

It should be noted that even though any nation with the social stratification existing in Latin America would equally face tremendous hurdles to attend to the many health crises accentuated by the new coronavirus, the lack of efficient, coherent leadership and inclusive decision-making processes present in Latin American has certainly made things much worse. For one, stay-at-home policies could not be put in place in efficient ways since significant portions of workers simply could not afford to stop working in the streets since their very livelihood would thus be denied.

Regionally the informal sector[11] employs from a third to half of each country’s workforce and, especially where government economic aid was not forthcoming or was otherwise insufficient, it became extremely challenging for many not to venture outside in search of some form of remuneration or gain. Much in the same way, the halting of in-classroom education and its replacement by online education, though present across the region, impacted people differently depending on their socio-economic position. To be sure, the manifestation and especially the impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America vary according to people’s zip codes and racial composition. In effect, facing COVID-19 has depended largely on one’s socio-economic reality,[12] i.e. one’s economic means, type of employment, educational background, place and type of residence.

In short, being able to have access to online education, managing social or physical distancing, and following stay-at-home policies, all depended on one’s place in the entrenched stratified societies of Latin America. These challenges have been intensified by both the political fragmentation and economic slowdown most countries in the region faced prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Latin America’s political fragmentation[13] is today at its highest degree since the dawn of the 21st century and most of the region’s domestic political arenas are largely defined by intense political polarization, which means that the anti-COVID-19 policies have been, in most places, mired in ideological disputes and conflicts. Coronavirus will also worsen the mediocre economic growth[14] most countries in the region have seen in the last five years, thus also intensifying existing regional economic disparities.

Adding to the many existing and growing challenges each country in the region faces, regional political coordination, such as the sharing of successful policies put in place in one country, has become a more difficult, though still a potentially important line of action. In fact, even though Latin America, particularly South America, has experienced its most promising period of regional cooperation in the first two decades of the 21st century, regional multilateralism has rapidly eroded in the last two years.

This erosion of multilateralism was a process involving the coordination of US policies in the region in order to undermine rising levels of autonomy created by new regional alliances, such as UNASUR. This process has involved once again to turning the Organization of American States[15] into a diplomatic instrument for the promotion of US interests in the region. The arrival to power of Jair Bolsonaro and his policy of direct alignment[16] with the US has consolidated these new trends. In effect, deepening his xenophobic isolationism, and mimicking Trump’s views and policies, the Brazilian president has recently accused the World Health Organization of being an ideologically driven organization, from which Brazil could possibly withdraw in the near future.[17]

All in all, Latin America’s landscape in the context of the regional spread of COVID-19 is one defined by growing economic, social, health, and political challenges. It is to be expected that heightened short-sighted nationalist views, deep political polarization, and entrenched economic inequalities will harden across the region, impacting more sharply and painfully historically marginalized social segments, such as afro-descendants and indigenous communities. Reversing these disheartening trends will take continued and asserted mobilization of broad sectors of all regional democratic forces. And it is very unfortunate therefore, that in such a challenging context, Latin America’s burgeoning experiences with regional cooperation in the last decade have been severely reversed in the last few years.[18]


Rafael R. Ioris is Associate Professor of Latin American History at the University of Denver.

Patricio Zamorano, Co-Director of COHA, contributed as Editor of this article

[Main photo-credit: Pixabay, open license]


End notes

[1] “Covid cases in Brazil,”

[2] “Covid cases in Mexico,”

[3] “Uruguay quietly beats coronavirus, distinguishing itself from its South American neighbors – yet again,”

[4] “Paraguay Closes Borders and Suspends Flights,”

[5] “Nicaragua battles COVID-19 and a Disinformation Campaign,”

[6] “While Brazil’s president fights social distancing, its public health system is fighting the pandemic,”

[7] “How Argentina’s Strict Covid-19 Lockdown Saved Lives.”

[8] “Brazil’s President Still Insists the Coronavirus is Overblown. These Governors Are Fighting Back,”

[9] “Brazil: Coronavirus Cases,”

[10] “Mexico: Coronavirus Cases,”

[11] “It’s time to tackle the informal economy problem in Latin America,”

[12] “Covid-19 Exposes Latin America’s Inequality,”

[13] “Latin America: political change in volatile and uncertain times,”

[14] “Latin America faces a second ‘lost decade’,”

[15] “How the Leader of OAS Became a Right-Wing Hawk – And Paved the Way For Bolivia’s Coup,”

[16] “Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Follower,”

[17] “Brazil could quit WHO, warns Bolsonaro,”

[18] “Is Regional Cooperation Dead in Latin America?,”