Latin American countries face uphill battle against Covid-19 pandemic

Medical personnel protest in Mexico City on May 25, 2020, with signs reading, "New N95, for your safety, for my safety, for everybody's safety" and "No to exposure without protection equipment".
Medical personnel protest in Mexico City on May 25, 2020, with signs reading, "New N95, for your safety, for my safety, for everybody's safety" and "No to exposure without protection equipment". © Alfredo Estrella, AFP

While the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be coming under control in Asia and Europe, it continues to wreak havoc in Latin America. The World Health Organization has described this as a “new epicentre”. FRANCE 24 provides an overview of the situation in these countries, which are trying to achieve a balance between protective health measures and the need to start reviving the economy.


Latin America is the "new epicentre" of the Covid-19 pandemic, with infections and deaths set to substantially worsen in the coming weeks, the WHO said on Tuesday.  

While Europe is slowly emerging from lockdown, Latin America is now the most affected place in the world, with terrible repercussions for both the economy and employment.

“South America has become a new epicentre for the disease. We are seeing an increase in the number of cases in many South American countries,” said executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme Michael Ryan at a virtual conference from Geneva.

Death rates by country per 100,000 population as of May 27 2020, according to John Hopkins University.
Death rates by country per 100,000 population as of May 27 2020, according to John Hopkins University. © FRANCE 24 infographic.

Brazil, Mexico and Peru are experiencing the most severe concentration of deaths in Latin America. Chile, for its part, is on the brink of collapse, according to its president, while Ecuador and especially the city of Guayaquil, are beginning to show signs of recovery.

FRANCE 24 provides an overview of the different situations in the region:

In Brazil, populism and pandemics mix poorly

With a population of 210 million, Brazil is now the second most affected country in the world, behind the United States, in number of confirmed cases. It is feared that the number of infections and deaths could be higher, as the country has been slow to implement screening tests.

Far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro has been downplaying the epidemic since the beginning of the crisis. With his supporters, he has denounced "the dictatorship of the coronavirus” and has regularly refused to respect any social distancing. During a meeting in the capital Brasilia on Sunday, he removed his mask, shook hands with as many people as possible and to even carried a child on his shoulders.

To protect the population, however, local authorities have adopted containment measures against the advice of the president.

In Mexico, too hasty to end lockdown?

Mexico has the second highest death toll in Latin America with more than 6,000 deaths related to Covid-19. In spite of this, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is already considering ending lockdown and claimed in a press conference that "the pandemic has been tamed", allowing "a return to a new normalcy".

While he believes that social distancing must be maintained, his government has already begun working on how the country should emerge from lockdown. They have developed a four-colour coding system depending on the intensity of the virus's circulation. Obrador wants to restart economic activity as soon as possible. This rush to a new normal is being delayed by the closure of the border with the United States, a trading partner on which Mexico is highly dependent.

"The social distancing campaign has made it possible to smooth out the epidemiological curve so that hospitals are less saturated. But [Obrador’s] eagerness to end lockdown risks provoking a second wave of contagion,” Dr. Guillermo Torre of the faculty of medicine at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, said in an interview to the French daily Le Monde. This is especially true since NGOs have questioned whether the real number of cases is greatly underestimated in the country.

In Peru, the struggle continues

On March 16, when only 86 cases were officially registered, Peru was the first Latin American country to adopt restrictive measures in an attempt to contain the epidemic. But, after nine weeks of lockdown, infection figures exploded. Peru is now the second most affected country in Latin America after Brazil, and the third in terms of number of deaths after Brazil and Mexico.

The spread, despite lockdown, is due to several factors. The first is the fragility of the Peruvian health system. More than 8,000 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised in Peru. But, due to a combination of lack of protective equipment and failure to follow health safety protocols, the virus has spread rapidly among health care workers. At least 635 doctors and 1,200 nurses contracted the disease, and 33 health-care workers died.

In addition, markets and banks have acted as vectors for circulating the virus. By declaring lockdown, the government was forced to maintain essential economic activities, including the sale of food in markets. The markets became a source of contamination until the government responded by closing them down. The same problem occurred with the banks, where Peruvians flocked to withdraw emergency aid vouchers.

The soaring number of infections can also be explained by the central role of the unofficial sector, which accounts for 70 percent of the country's activities. Thousands of people defied lockdown orders to feed their families.

In Chile, hospitals are overcrowded

Chile registered a new high for coronavirus cases on Monday, with nearly 5,000 infections in 24 hours, including two ministers in President Sebastian Piñera's government.

Over the past two weeks, Chile has seen a very significant increase in contamination, which has prompted the government to decree compulsory lockdown for the seven million inhabitants of the capital, Santiago.

Piñera was alarmed that the national health system became saturated and "very close to its limits". In Santiago, the occupancy rate for intensive care beds is close to 95 percent.

But the pandemic is not the only problem facing Chile. Unemployment and hunger have exploded in the poorest neighbourhoods. In mid-May, residents of Santiago defied compulsory lockdown to protest.

In response, the Chilean government has begun distributing 2.5 million food baskets to the poorest families. These distributions, estimated to cost $100 million, are to take place throughout Chile for people who have lost their jobs due to the health crisis. But the situation remains explosive because of a social imbalance that was already tense before the epidemic.

In Venezuela, has the epidemic been contained?

According to Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, the country has managed to "contain" the spread of the coronavirus. The Venezuelan government recorded just 11 deaths related to Covid-19 and 1,211 confirmed cases on Wednesday. 

If Maduro is proud of these figures, his main opponent, the self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido, contests them. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has also publicly criticised Venezuela's "lack of transparency". But both the WHO and Johns Hopkins University have accepted the government's official figures.

Lockdown has been extended for another month for the 30 million Venezuelans. A decision by Maduro that has less to do with health reasons than with a shortage of petrol that is undermining an already unlikely economic recovery, according to experts in the region interviewed by AFP.

Many people have resorted to breaking lockdown restrictions, especially in Caracas, where the population is trying to get back to work in order to survive an economic situation that was already bad before the pandemic.

In Ecuador, recovery is slow

Since the first detection of the coronavirus in the country on February 29, Ecuador has been one of the Latin American countries hardest hit by the pandemic. More than 3,200 people have died and images of dead bodies in homes and streets have shocked the world.

The city of Guayaquil quickly became the local epicentre of the pandemic, resulting in the collapse of its health and funeral systems.

To curb the spread of the disease, Ecuador declared a state of emergency in mid-March and closed schools and offices. A 15-hour daily curfew was also imposed.

This has resulted in public protest. Demonstrators defied coronavirus restrictions to march in cities across Ecuador on Monday in protest against President Lenin Moreno's drastic economic measures to tackle the crisis.

Guayaquil is finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. After nine weeks of lockdown, the city has begun the next phase, with the resumption of some activities and industries.

In Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay, caution remains

This trio of countries appears to be coping well with the Covid-19 pandemic for the time being. Their united stance is one of caution, as in Argentina where lockdown has been extended until June 7.

In Colombia, it is extended at least until May 31, while the state of health emergency is expected to last until August 31.

In Uruguay, according to the scientific committee advising the government, the pandemic is under "relative control". This small country of 3.5 million people has registered less than 1,000 cases and only 22 deaths by May 28.

This article was translated by Sophie Gorman from the original in French.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app