Coronavirus in Latin America: a tale of failed leadership and inequality

Coronavirus in Latin America: a tale of failed leadership and inequality

The first confirmed Covid-19 infection in Latin America occurred precisely six months ago when a 61-year-old man tested positive for the disease in São Paulo. Despite having weeks to prepare for the arrival of a virus that was already disrupting societies in Asia and Europe, most Latin American nations have decidedly lost the battle against Covid-19. In the past six months, the region quickly became the world’s epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic.

Many have succumbed to the temptation of placing the blame solely on national governments. After all, it is hard to dispute that Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro have actively made the crisis worse than it should be. The former did everything in his power to undermine social distancing efforts implemented by Brazilian state governors, while the latter went as far as calling patients infected with Covid-19 “bioterrorists.” Meanwhile, both have touted unproven treatments against the coronavirus, acting as disinformation agents.

But the reality is far more complex. Even in countries where the pandemic was taken seriously from the start — namely Argentina and Peru — infection and death curves have now spiraled out of control. And that is because of a deeply-rooted problem in the region: inequality.


For tens of millions of Latin Americans living in poor housing conditions, social distancing is not an option. Moreover, the region’s economy is extremely informal, being highly concentrated in sectors that depend on the functioning of the in-person economy — meaning that it is impossible for governments to keep their populations at home indefinitely. Quarantines can only work for so long before economic needs begin to throttle the population.

In an August 17 report, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) said that at least 23.9 million jobs were lost in Latin America, affecting 12.5 percent of the total workforce in the region. Meanwhile, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that trade in the region will fall 23 percent in 2020, a bigger skid than in the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Besides the boom of informal jobs, the political impact of the coronavirus pandemic is already a reality. 

In Bolivia, self-appointed interim President Jeanine Áñez is using the pandemic as an excuse to prolong her time in office — despite promising to act as a stopgap president between the coup that ousted Evo Morales last year and democratic presidential elections.

In Brazil, the pandemic forced the government into creating an emergency salary for informal and unemployed workers, which has become the only source of income for 14 million people — and drove President Jair Bolsonaro’s approval ratings to their highest levels ever.

In other countries, leaders fear the coronavirus crisis could lead to their demise. That is the case with embattled Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, as well as Nicaragua’s authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega.

It remains too early to predict what post-pandemic Latin America will look like. However, it is safe to say that the economic depression — coupled with the sheer human toll of the coronavirus — will leave many scars on what was already the world’s most unequal region.

Here is how the pandemic has affected some of the region’s key economies:


Brazil (3.7 million cases, 116,580 deaths)

Key dates:

  • February 26. A 61-year-old man in São Paulo becomes the first confirmed Covid-19 patient in the region.
  • March 12. Fábio Wajngarten, the president’s press secretary, tests positive for Covid-19 after a presidential trip to Florida. Over 20 people in the president’s entourage were infected shortly after — many of the cases were traced back to that trip.
  • April 16. Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta is fired by President Jair Bolsonaro after disagreements over the use of antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19. The president supports the unproven treatment, against all scientific evidence. Oncologist Nelson Teich is named as his replacement.
  • May 15. Mr. Teich resigns, for the same reasons as his predecessor: disagreements over social isolation guidelines and the recommendation of chloroquine as a “possible cure” for the coronavirus. Since then, the Health Ministry has been run on an interim basis by Army General Eduardo Pazuello.
  • June 19. Brazil surpasses 1 million cases.
  • July 7. Jair Bolsonaro tests positive for Covid-19
  • August 8. Brazil surpasses 100,000 deaths and 3 million cases 

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -9.1 percent (IMF)

Even before the coronavirus arrived in Brazil, the government showed signs that it would take the risks of a massive spread seriously, with the Health Ministry proposing a bill to give the government legal support to carry out emergency measures. After that, however, Brazil’s public response has been a disaster. The federal government collided with state administrations over quarantine measures and President Jair Bolsonaro has been a focal point of misinformation and denialism.

As in other countries, inequality plays a huge role in how the pandemic has progressed in Brazil. Poor housing conditions mean that millions of people live cramped in densely-populated areas, where social isolation is near-impossible. Many more have no access to clean water, making regular hand-washing — a key tool to prevent infections — more challenging.

An informal labor market and an already sluggish economy meant that millions of people preferred the risk of a Covid-19 infection to the certainty of not having any source of income whatsoever. The government created a coronavirus emergency salary program — and in 25 of 27 states, beneficiaries already outnumber people who are formally employed.


Argentina (359,625 cases, 7,563 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 20. Government announces compulsory quarantine;
  • June 20. Protests against the expropriation of grain exporter Vicentín erupt in several cities;
  • July 9. Demonstrations in several cities demand President Fernández ease quarantine measures;
  • August 17. Protests against a judicial reform also mix with disgruntlement over quarantine measures. 

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -9.9 percent (IMF)

The health crisis began soon after President Alberto Fernández took office, but the country was already battling a deep economic crisis — reaching the point of default earlier in the year. 

Mr. Fernández, however, managed to strike a deal with Argentina’s private creditors to restructure a USD-65 billion-debt. The agreement was a relief to a government that was growing unpopular, as Argentinians began protesting quarantine measures, among other reasons for disgruntlement.


Bolivia (110,999 cases, 4,664 deaths)

Key dates:

  • July 9. Interim President Jeanine Áñez tests positive for the coronavirus;
  • July 21. The Bolivian press reports that, between July 15-20, over 420 bodies were removed from the streets across five regions;
  • August 16. Esther Morales, sister of deposed President Evo Morales, dies of Covid-19 in Oruro.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -2.9 percent (IMF)

The pandemic postponed long-awaited elections in Bolivia. While Ms. Áñez argues that holding a national election while the pandemic rages on is a bad move, it also raises questions about her willingness to leave power. Especially since courts in Bolivia are cracking down on former President Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party.


Chile (400,985 cases, 10,958 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 16. Chile closes its borders;
  • March 24. The government enforces a curfew;
  • May 15. Capital Santiago goes under full lockdown, along with six other communes in the city’s metropolitan area.
  • June 16. Health Minister Jaime Mañalich resigns, accused of being slow to react to the spread of the virus and tampering with official data.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -4.5 percent (IMF)

At first, Chile seemed to be managing the crisis well. However, a precocious reopening in May led to an uptick in infections and deaths, with a 60-percent bump in new cases. Things got worse when Health Minister Jaime Mañalich resigned due to a data tampering-scandal. An independent report accused the government of concealing more than 5,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

Moreover, Chile was already a society in turmoil — in 2019, President Sebastián Piñera faced a massive wave of street protests, in a crisis that threatened to bring down his administration. To ease popular discontent, Mr. Piñera promised a constitutional referendum for October.


Colombia (562,128 cases, 17,889 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 25. President Iván Duque enacts a mandatory quarantine;
  • July 15. Human Rights Watch denounces abuses by armed groups against civilians between March and June, in an effort to enforce their own measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -2.4 percent (IMF)

Violence in Colombia increased during the pandemic, as many armed groups have been using their unofficial authority to impose isolation measures. A report by Human Rights Watch denounced massacres, especially in border regions. 

Almost 65 percent of Colombians approve of President Iván Duque’s coronavirus response, according to a recent survey. However, the country reported a new record for daily Covid-19 deaths on August 22, with 385 lethal cases. Fears of new peaks pushed the government to suspend tax-free days on retail stores to avoid big shopping crowds.


Ecuador (109,030 cases, 6,368 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 17. The country begins enforcing restrictions on movement;
  • March 30. Local press organizations report that families in Guayaquil had burned the belongings of Covid-19 victims;
  • March 31. Newspaper El Universo says 450-plus dead bodies featured on a waiting list to be removed from homes. At this point, many families were simply abandoning corpses on the streets;
  • June 6. Capital Quito starts its reopening process.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -2.4 percent (IMF)

In April, one month before the WHO declared South America the coronavirus epicenter, the city of Guayaquil went viral around the globe due to being the site of the first Covid-19 collapse in South America. The nightmare included more than 100 bodies being collected on the streets during the first chaotic days, according to Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo. Four months after the disaster, the province of Guayas (of which Guayaquil is the capital) now shows a downward trend in cases and deaths, already targeting the final phase of control. 


Mexico (568,621 cases, 61,450 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 15. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador publishes a video on Twitter hugging and kissing supporters;
  • March 31. Mexico suspends all non-essential activities.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: -10.5 percent (IMF)

At the early stages of the pandemic, President Andrés Manuel “AMLO” López Obrador dismissed the severity of the virus — drawing comparisons to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump. The left-wing leader even showed a Jesus medallion as his “protection” against the virus and urged Mexicans to go on with their lives as usual. 

While AMLO has since changed his stance, Mexico quickly became the third country with most deaths and cases in the Americas — trailing only the U.S. and Brazil.


Peru (607,382 cases, 28,001 deaths)

Key dates:

  • March 15. President Martín Vizcarra passes a nationwide quarantine;
  • July 22. The government adds a total of 3,688 unreported deaths between March and June;
  • August 23. At least 13 people suffocate after police raid a party in Lima. The police were deployed to avoid public gatherings.

Expected GDP growth in 2020: 14 percent (IMF)

Peru is a textbook example of how social inequality may offset any government action against the coronavirus. The government imposed strict lockdowns before the United Kingdom and many other European countries. Still, it has become home to the world’s second-highest rate of Covid-19 deaths per 1 million people — behind only Belgium.

Experts say that a lack of information — coupled with limited access to healthcare and poor housing conditions — turned poorer regions in the Andes into breeding grounds for the virus.[/restricted]

Aline Gatto Boueri

Aline Gatto Boueri is a data journalist. She has had her work published by Gênero e Número, Universa UOL, Marie Claire, Projeto Colabora, among others.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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