Latin America still suffers from crushing deaths from Covid-19 and social upheaval
In a week that has seen Brazil set a new record for daily Covid-19 infections, the country’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has stepped up his campaign to minimize the virus by removing the face mask of the country. ‘a child before telling another to take their own off at a presidential event last Thursday.
The video of the two incidents angered many Brazilians but surprised few. Bolsonaro’s denialist approach to tackling the pandemic has not wavered since its onset, even now that a third wave has pushed the country’s death toll past half a million.
This presidential campaign against face masks, social distancing and vaccinations means that at their current death rates, Brazil is on track to reorganize the United States as the country that will suffer the most deaths from Covid-19 by the end of summer.
It also made it the poster child for what went wrong with the response to the pandemic in Latin America. The region is home to less than 10% of the world’s population, but has been responsible for nearly a third of all deaths from the virus. This despite extremely varied approaches, from Bolsonaro’s denial to some of the most rigid blockages in Peru and Bolivia and a widely hailed vaccine rollout in Chile.
But the four Latin nations along with Mexico, Paraguay, Colombia and Argentina are among the 20 countries currently most affected by Covid-19, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
“Latin America is the region which remains the most worrying in the world because there is a lack of control over the circulation of the virus here”, explains Dr Antonio Flores, infectious disease specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières.
This containment failure is expected to continue due to the delay in achieving significant vaccine coverage, whether due to Bolsonaro’s obstructionist approach to vaccinations in Brazil, or issues with the global Covax initiative to provide vaccines to the poorest countries on which countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are dependent.
Even Chile has seen its successful early vaccination of much of its population compromised by a hasty reopening which experts say has allowed a new wave of infections.
But even as the region continues to struggle to bring the virus under control, the consequences of the impact of the pandemic are increasingly being felt in societies that, before the detection of the new coronavirus, were already inflamed with social and political tensions.
There were violent street protests from Haiti to Chile as well as a series of constitutional crises in 2019. Since then, after suffering a decade of stagnation that has helped fuel this unrest, Latin America has been the region. who suffered the most from production. of the economic disruption of the pandemic, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
“Without the pandemic, the unrest of 2019 would likely only have worsened and spread further across the region in 2020,” said Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, a regional research group based in Chile. “The pandemic has put a very strong brake on the protests, but none of the issues that caused the unrest have been resolved. In fact, it only deepens them and now, even without the virus being under control, people are giving up on quarantine. “
The most obvious sign that the pandemic’s pause in unrest is over comes from Colombia. A tax reform proposed in April by President Iván Duque sparked mass protests that revealed the depths of desperation in the face of soaring unemployment and poverty caused by the pandemic.
Unlike the largely peaceful protests in the country in 2019, this latest cycle has turned violent, with dozens of protesters killed and hundreds arrested. The unrest shows no signs of abating even after Duque withdrew his new tax plan.
Meanwhile, Chile, which has seen some of the most violent protests in 2019, has seen the pandemic accelerate disenchantment with its traditional political system. The independents found themselves with the balance of power in the convention elected in May to draft a new constitution for the country.
This surprise result injected enormous uncertainty into the presidential race scheduled for November. The first surprise favorite is Daniel Jadue, the communist mayor of a district in the capital Santiago.
Across the border in Peru, a similar dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians allowed the candidate for a marginal Marxist party that came out of nowhere to win his presidential election earlier this month, much to the shock of the elite of the country, which still tries to prevent the certification of its victory.
Pedro Castillo’s message of ‘more poor in a rich country’ resonated among the population most affected by the pandemic in the world, which has seen Peru record the highest death rate since Covid-19 despite strict lockdowns which crushed much of the economy, causing one of the worst hunger spikes currently seen in the region.
Some analysts have expressed hope that the rapid economic recovery in other parts of the world will help boost Latin American economies by pushing up the prices of its exports of raw materials such as oil, iron ore and seeds. soy. But others warn that this will not be enough to ease current tensions.
“The question is how the wealth of any economic reactivation will be distributed in the region. I think the pressure to redistribute within countries is going to be huge and very inelastic, which means people won’t be prepared to wait. They have suffered and will ask for their part now and that will bring a lot of social unrest, ”predicts Lagos de Latinobarómetro, who says the ground is now fertile for the region’s new breed of populists to profit from the discontent.
But if rising global demand for its commodities is not enough to ease tensions in the region, there is an area where foreigners could make a difference in helping Latin America emerge from the current crisis, according to the reporters. health experts.
“We need a planned global exit from the pandemic that corrects the shamefully poor distribution of vaccines,” says Flores of Médecins Sans Frontières. “It is in mutual interest because if one region of the world is vaccinated and another is not, the virus will continue to circulate and eventually circulate around the world.”