The Latin American continent is at great risk because of the coronavirus pandemic. Most Latin American countries viewed the new coronavirus as a distant and unlikely problem – until the first case was registered in Brazil in late February. Since then, the virus has rapidly spread across the region, with most cases diagnosed in Brazil, Ecuador and Chile. Experts predict major problems for Latin American states in both epidemiological and economic terms.
Greater part of the Latin American population lives in a typical dense urban enclaves – the favelas – where the virus is spreading around at the greatest pace. Currently, some 490 million people in Latin America do not have adequate sanitation. All of them are at risk. Experts say that a region with a high level of poverty, where hundreds of millions of people live in cramped quarters without access to proper sanitation or medical care, provides an ideal breeding ground for the virus. At that, there isn't much talk about remote areas of the Amazonian selva, as well as inhabitants of abandoned villages in the Central American one. There, the Indian population is virtually eliminated from the health system. The reason is simple: qualified doctors do not come to work there due to difficult living conditions, a large amount of work and low wages.
Brazil and Mexico, where more than half of the continent's population lives, remain the only countries in Latin America whose presidents, Jair Bolsonaro and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador respectively, take the coronavirus threat rather carelessly. They both mocked calls to shut down businesses and drastically restrict public transport, referring to such measures as to far more destructive to people's well-being than the coronavirus itself. Lopez Obrador, for instance, keeps claiming there are no issues for concern and pushes back on measures taken by other countries to slow down the virus spread. Bolsonaro has repeatedly called this a mere information hysteria and fancy fomented by political rivals and mass media to weaken his government. So far, no measures have been taken in Brazil to combat the epidemic at the federal level. Bolsonaro, like Lopez Obrador, is defiantly meeting with citizens, shaking their hands, giving hugs and making joint photos.
Even with all things considered, as of the morning of March 25, there were 2,271 confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil, which is six times higher than a week ago, with the death toll accounting for 47. Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has warned that the country's public health system will "collapse" by the end of April at the same rate as the virus is spreading. In Brazil, some lawmakers have even raised the issue of impeaching Bolsonaro over his being demonstratively inactive. And the Spanish El País, probably in the dismal wake of the coronavirus situation in its own country, writes the following: "Nothing would be worse than downplaying the danger Brazil faces during these hours, and placing everything in the hands of a person like the retired and ultra-Nazi captain Jair Bolsonaro, who not only mocks the epidemic that is bringing the world to its knees, but also attempts to exploit it to undermine democratic institutions and strengthen his lust for power."
Without waiting for instructions from the President, the governors of some Brazilian states are independently taking measures to combat the spread of the virus. It even comes to mishap. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug dealer gangs, enjoying more power than the government, have declared a strict curfew. "We want the best for the population," one of the drug dealers' leaflets says. "If the government is unable to handle the situation, we are going to deal with it."
All the other countries of the continent look different as compared to Brazil and Mexico. Many of them have closed their borders and imposed a state of emergency. In Chile, for one, a national referendum scheduled for this spring on altering the constitution adopted in the Pinochet era was postponed, as demanded by mass protests that swept through Chile this fall and brought the country to the verge of a civil war. In Latin America, there is a shared understanding that the continent is facing an insurmountable problem, which is not only the COVID-19 pandemic itself, but the inability of the region's poorly organized health systems to effectively confront it.
Political differences and conflict situations in Latin America, as well as the international structures' unequal approach to the continent's countries, with the United States playing first fiddle, may also hinder the coronavirus issue settlement. For instance, it still remains to be seen how effectively and equally benevolent the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will act towards all the Latin American countries. In the final document of the G20 virtual summit held on March 26, the IMF was listed among the actors that, along with other international structures, is determined to do "whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic." But up to this point, the IMF has shown a clear political bias in favor of the United States. Just a few days ago, the IMF refused to allocate $5 billion to Venezuela, which is suffocating from US sanctions, to combat the coronavirus. This context allows to look at Cuba from a different perspective, as it has already sent its doctors and medical equipment to Venezuela, Grenada and Nicaragua as part of the fight against the pandemic, despite its own lack of wealth.
Analysts believe that Latin America, many of whose countries are in a state of deep and chronic economic crisis (with Argentina being the classic example), is more vulnerable to economic collapse than any other region, because the pandemic is blocking cooperative chains around the world. With closed borders, halted international transport and an internal quarantine, many businesses, if not half of them, are already closed in the region's countries. Economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean was just 0.1 per cent last year, driven by low commodity prices and a wave of social upheaval that has sent shockwaves across Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. The coronavirus pandemic will likely prove even worse.
Some experts confidently predict a social explosion in the Latin American countries that are being constantly exposed to various political and economic shocks. " In a situation like this, things can break down really fast if there is a lack of trust in government and people feel very vulnerable," the New York Times quotes one of the analysts with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington as saying. By the way, not everyone thinks that Bolsonaro, in particular, is acting recklessly. It has been suggested that he sets social chaos in motion in order to impose a state of siege and deploy repression. In Mexico, health experts say Lopez Obrador's position is reckless and warn that failure to take quick steps will worsen the virus's humanitarian and economic consequences in the near future. "Our health system can be overloaded, like in Italy, and when we reach this point, we will face an uncontrolled situation that can lead to social chaos," said former Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos, who had led Mexico's successful fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.
If you complement all of this with the fact that the United States has come out on top in the number of coronavirus cases, forecasts are poor for the whole of America – both South and North. According to Johns Hopkins University, there are more than 82 thousand cases in the United States, while in China there are nearly 81.8 thousand. With figures like that in the United States, where the level of medicine and health care system is incomparably higher than in all of Latin America combined, what can we say about the near future of countries south of the Rio Grande? The continent may well face devastating consequences for public health, economy and the social framework.