Latin America Isn’t Ready for the Virus Onslaught Headed Its Way
For weeks, as the world was gripped by panic over the spreading coronavirus, Latin America looked largely unscathed. Supermarkets were stocked, buses still crowded and, as recently as a few days ago, the Mexican and Brazilian presidents were unabashedly mingling with large crowds.
Now, as infections balloon in the region, a picture is emerging that could help explain why the virus was so slow to take hold here -- and what the devastation could look like once it does. Medical professionals warn that the speed and breadth of the pandemic could be unlike anything seen so far in Asia or Europe, because Latin America isn’t at all prepared.
“Our public health care is already precarious,” said Vivian Avelino-Silva, an infectologist and researcher at the University of Sao Paulo. “If Europe, which has none of the same issues, is struggling to contain the tragedy, what can we expect here?”
She has reason to be concerned. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, with more than a third of its population living in poverty. In Mexico, there are fewer than 1.4 hospital beds per 1,000 people, the lowest among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Brazil, reports are on the rise of poor residents getting chemical burns because of poorly-made hand sanitizers. And in Venezuela, doctors and hospitals often don’t even have running water to wash up.
Latin America has at least 2,300 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness, an almost 10-fold increase from a week earlier, and 22 reported deaths. The first infection was reported in late February, when a 61-year-old man returned to Brazil from Italy and fell ill.
Up until about a week ago, cases all seemed to follow a similar pattern: The sick were affluent jet-setters who’d caught the bug elsewhere and brought it back home with them. The CEO of the Jose Cuervo tequila maker was part of an outbreak in Mexico after ski trips to Vail, Colorado. A posh beach wedding in northern Brazil became the epicenter for a cluster among Instagram influencers. One maid in Sao Paulo joked that poor Brazilians had started crossing the street when a rich person walked their way.
And then there are the members of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s delegation to Florida who tested positive. The trip, which included a Feb. 29 dinner with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, is linked to over a dozen cases, with government members including Brazil’s top security official now in isolation. (Bolsonaro himself has so far tested negative.)
Among regional governments, the response to the pandemic has been split between deniers and doers. While Argentina, Peru and even Venezuela have been quick to go into lock-down, it’s mostly been business as usual in Mexico and Brazil, Latin America’s powerhouses by size, economic might and number of people.
Bolsonaro attended public demonstrations just last Sunday in Brasilia, where he fist-bumped supporters and held their mobile phones out for selfies. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrived at a crowded oil conference on Wednesday and greeted fellow attendees with traditional kisses on the cheek.
That was after a two-day music festival headlined by Guns N’ Roses took place in Mexico City.
“How did we allow a concert with 70,000 people over the weekend?” opposition Senator Josefina Vazquez Mota asked a top health official at a hearing on Tuesday. “How are we supposed to not be terrified when we look at what’s going on in Italy and Spain?”
Doctors across the region warn that once the virus starts spreading freely in poorer communities, some of which don’t have proper water or sewage hook-ups, it could spark a humanitarian crisis. Ariel Izcovich, a doctor of internal medicine at the elite Hospital Aleman in Buenos Aires, said the private facility where he works can handle an onslaught of cases -- but the public health system will probably buckle.
“That’s universal for all of Latin America,” he said.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, Latin American economies were struggling. Argentina is on the verge of its ninth default and inflation is running above 50%. Brazil hasn’t been able to kickstart growth since a massive corruption scandal. Mexico was already grappling with a shortage of medicine and medical supplies. And Venezuela is in the midst of a seven-year recession that’s brought the economy and daily life to its knees.
Bank of America economists now forecast Latin America will contract 1.6% in 2020, with the deepest recessions in Mexico, where growth may recoil 4.5%, and Venezuela, with a 20% contraction.
None of the governments are in much of a position to come to the rescue with fiscal aid if needed.
“The cupboards are bare at the worst possible moment -- there’s very little ammunition for the type of stimulus needed to recover,” said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center. “The failure of Latin America to arm itself with savings during its boom time is deeply constraining its ability to respond today.”
Susan Martins, a 36-year-old widow and mother of two in Brazil, said self-quarantines in most neighborhoods are impossible. Brazilians, like most Latin Americans, are more social in their day to day, and it’s not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under one roof. Besides, Martins asks, what are all the kids supposed to do?
“Rich kids have video games and parents who can take them to the park,” she said. “Poor kids have nothing, so they go out and play.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.