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Latin America’s Coronavirus Crisis: Why it Disproportionally Affects the Poor

22 Dec 2020
By Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
Press conference of the President of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro and Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Source: Isac Nóbrega

COVID-19 has hit Latin America with unimaginable force. In a region marred by structural inequalities and a huge gap between rich and poor, the pandemic could work, in practical terms, as a genocide of the poor.

This is an article published earlier this year and selected by our committee of commissioning editors as one of the best of the year. It was originally published on 30 July 2020.

With coronavirus infections still soaring, Brazil it is the country with the second higher number of cases in the world, only lagging behind the US. Brazil is Latin America’s virus hotspot, with cases reaching the gruesome 2 million mark and with a death toll of over 90,000 – by far the highest in all Latin America, and the world’s second-highest after only the US. Brazil’s out of control pandemic raises concerns for the safety of Brazilians, Latin Americans, and international future security.

In a country with huge socio-economic divides and high levels of illiteracy, Brazil’s president’s posturing, and the lack of a federal government cohesive strategy to the coronavirus crisis has proven, so far, nothing less than disastrous. But how are other Latin American countries – and the poorest of the poorer – coping with this pandemic?

Latin America: the new epicentre of the pandemic?

While Brazil is the regional epicentre of the pandemic, the virus has spread to every country in the region – with cases tripling in some countries. According to the John Hopkins coronavirus resource centre, Peru is the world’s sixth-highest with 400,683 reported cases and 18,816 deaths; followed by Mexico as the world’s seventh with 408,449 cases; and Chile as the world’s eight with 351,575 reported cases.

Curiously, Brazil, Latin America’s worse affected country, and Mexico, its third, are led by populist presidents who downplayed the threat posed by the virus, compromising a cohesive regional response to clamp down infection rates.

In a downward spiral of never-ending controversy, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is now infected with the virus, but still pledges not to change his approach to the pandemic. The far-right President downplayed the threat, declaring it was “a minor cold,” stated he was not concerned about contracting the virus because of his “athletic physique;” and even accused his political foes and the press of “tricking citizens” about the threats posed by the coronavirus. While quarantined, president Bolsonaro frequently complains of “boredom,” since he dislikes being at home – “it is horrible.” Bolsonaro recently broadcasted a social media  video where he is seen taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, declaring, “it is working” and enquiring “I trust in hydroxychloroquine, and you?” Amid an uncontrolled pandemic Bolsonaro has presided administrative chaos, sacking two health ministers over diverging views on social distancing measures, and endorsing hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients due to no assured medical evidence that the anti- malaria drug can prevent or heal infections. The shoddy replacement, acting health minister Eduardo Pazuello, is a former general with no medical training. It is he who is overseeing guidelines prescribing hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients with mild symptoms.

Mexico’s left-leaning populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, similarly to his Brazilian populist counter-part has downplayed the threat posed by the virus, stating in the early stages of the pandemic: “If you can do it and have the economic capacity, continue to take your family out to eat at restaurants because this strengthens the local economy.

López Obrador’s mismanagement of the crisis crushed his approval rates, which were high before the crisis – now with 37.4 percent of popular support. Data Folha surveys indicate Brazil’s Bolsonaro approval rate at 34 per cent. Surprisingly, Bolsonaro’s support base of 30 to 35 per cent of Brazilians has continued mostly untouched since the outbreak of the crisis. Brazil’s elite groups – Bolsonaro’s core support base – can self-isolate, work from home, and will go through this pandemic mostly unharmed.

Peru, the second-highest Latin American country in the number of infections, introduced hard lockdowns early on, but social structures such as street markets, the handling of cash in banks, and cramped up living conditions triggered a spike in cases and deaths. Arguably, another key element for Latin America’s untamed spread of the virus is related to historical and structural inequalities. Infectious diseases scientist Dr Irene Bosch contends, “It’s not one culprit, or a culprit or a government,” she continues explaining “we are talking about huge social disparities in the structure of Latin American countries – that disparity is atrocious.” Following this line of thought, the problem in Latin America is that the bulk of the population have minimal resources, with only a few elite groups holding on to most wealth and enjoying high living conditions. This is the result of years of Spanish and Portuguese colonial occupation, creating a mindset of “masters versus slaves” constructed along racial lines – and this legacy lives on.

Latin America coronavirus crisis and the economically vulnerable

In Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately 113 million people live in slums. According to the United Nations, the situation in the region is not as widespread as in Africa and India. However, still about 36 million people, more than the populations of Mexico-city, Bogota, Lima, and Buenos Aires combined live without access to clean water. An issue often overlooked when analysing the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis in Latin America is the abyssal gap between the rich and poor, and how this crisis will disproportionally affect economically vulnerable communities. For instance, Latin Americans in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, or Mexico-city live below the poverty line in cramped up homes, with restricted access to clean water and sanitisation.

In this region, water security is an issue affecting only the poor, with no prospects of change in the foreseeable future. United Nation reports show Latin America’s problem is not lack of access to water, since the continent has plenty of fluvial rivers and abundant water resources. Manuel Rodriguez Becerra, former Minister for Environment in Colombia contends the problem with Latin America is the crippling inequality, in his words: “it is the poorest of the poor who don’t have access to clean drinking water”.

When dealing with coronavirus strategies and prevention, individuals living in favelas struggle to self-isolate and to keep high hygiene levels, and poverty keeps them ill-nourished. All these are significant factors in increasing the likelihood of coronavirus infections and deaths. In the outskirts of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, coronavirus infection rates are up to 30 per cent higher than the city’s average. Buenos Aires security minister Sergio Berni described some areas in Villa Azul, one of the city’s poorest slums as “worse than a nuclear explosion,” since “you can measure radioactivity in real-time. With this [virus], it’s 14 days late.” And in Brazil, with over 15 million people living in favelas, infection rates are jumping dramatically. Sadly, the disregard for Brazil’s poor is blatant. Reports indicate that infection rates in Rio de Janeiro are drastically underreported, with favela residents taking upon themselves doing the counting.

In a region marred by structural inequalities and with a huge gap between the living conditions of the rich and poor, downplaying the threat posed by this pandemic could work, in practical terms, as a genocide of the poor. Populist and irrational narratives may pave the way for a disaster of cataclysmic consequences – not only to these communities, but to Latin America, regional, and global security.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours from the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and a Graduate Diploma of International Relations and Security Studies from Curtin University, Western Australia. She is a Brazilian political analyst and has written extensively in this field. Her research interests include Brazilian politics and society, Latin American politics, populism and nationalism, women in the global south, gender, politics and religion.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.