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Covid-19 in Latin America – 22 May update

Update on the incidence of coronavirus and the responses of governments and local communities



  • By Emily Gregg, edited by Mike Gatehouse, with additional material from Peru & Haiti Support Groups UK and LAB correspondents in the region.
  • LAB has put together this seventh overview of the spread of coronavirus across the region and the reaction of governments, politicians and local communities. With our limited resources we could not hope to provide a truly comprehensive survey.
  • Figures for infections and mortality, summarised in the table at the end, are those given by the World Health Organisation Situation Report 122 on Friday 22 May. Where figures appear in the images within the article, they may refer to earlier dates.
  • LAB will attempt to follow up this story, focusing on the poor, marginal communities, indigenous groups and inequalities in treatment and economic compensation for the effects of this terrible pandemic on individuals and families.
  • See LAB articles at the head of our Home Page and in the Covid-19 section for further news, testimony & information. See also the posts on our Facebook page.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL, by its Spanish initials) published a report last week, which highlighted the disproportionate impact of Coronavirus on women, indigenous people, and Afrodescendants. It suggestsathat increasing levels of poverty and extreme poverty could break down social cohesion and encourage social discontent and there have instances of this over recent weeks in the region.

The CEPAL report concluded that ‘universal, redistributive and solidarity-based policies with a rights-based approach’ will be necessary to recover from the pandemic to prevent another ‘lost decade’. While the post-pandemic period will almost certainly see unrest, the pandemic itself has shown the need for deep structural changes to social protection and welfare systems.

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Prison hotbeds

Since the start of the pandemic, unrest has increased in prisons across the region demanding improved sanitary conditions. The prisons are known to rapidly spread diseases such as tuberculosis due to inhumanely cramped conditions and a severe lack of hygiene products and facilities. Some hardly have running water for showers. In others, prisoners are forced to share toothbrushes or defecate on the floor.  

Prisoners in Lima and Manaus have rioted and rebelled in fear of the virus being brought into the prison. Some in Argentina raised a banner that stated, “We refuse to die in prison”. At the beginning of the month, Venezuela saw one of its worst prison massacres when at least 47 inmates were killed as requests for food and hygiene escalated.

Prisoners climbed onto the roof of the Devoto prison, Argentina. Photo: El Eco

Their fears are valid. In Colombia, Villavicencio prison has reported over 900 Covid cases, which constitute over 7 percent of the country’s total. In Leticia, 89 of the 181 inmates have tested positive for Covid. In Manaus, Brazil, where the healthcare system has already collapsed, mass graves were dug, reportedly in anticipation of the virus entering the prison.  

While Brazil, Chile, Colombia and others have authorised the release of low-risk prisoners either temporarily or to finish their sentences under house arrest, in order to reduce spread of contagion in prisons, some in this category are not being allowed out.

In Brazil, a 2018 measure that would allow pregnant women and those with children under the age of twelve to carry out their sentence under house arrest was re-evaluated last month in the context of coronavirus. It was extended to include women who care for people with disabilities or those awaiting judgement.

However, over 5,000 women are being denied this. In fact, according to the Human Rights Advocacy Collective, only in 15.5 percent of valid cases were women released to house arrest. Judges across Brazil have defended their refusal to release the inmates with the argument that women use children as a ‘free pass’ to avoid prison. In Paraná, incarcerated women with new-borns were denied release as ‘there was no coronavirus’ on site, although this is not requirement for the measure.

A judge of the 1st Criminal Execution Court, Sonáli da Cruz Zluhan, who has granted house arrest to all those women who have passed through her court, said that these women are being ‘abandoned’ by the authorities, abused inside the prisons, and are unable to receive visitors.

You will find many more articles on the Covid-19 crisis on our website. Go to our Home Page to see the latest, or for a full list, go to the News page. You can also keep up-to-date by subscribing to our (free) monthly e-mail newsletter.


Venezuelan migrants have set up camp outside their country’s embassy in Santiago, Chile. At the start of the month, the Venezuelan chancellor offered a plan to return nationals, but no advance has been made. One of the campers reported that the embassy say they cannot bring a plane due to the blockade. The migrants have found themselves without work and have requested to return to their home country, where some still have houses and families. The migrants believe there could be up to 1000 Venezuelans in Chile seeking to return.

There are no reported cases of Covid in the camp, but as winter quickly approaches Santiago, the low temperatures threaten ill health.

Meanwhile, the number of Venezuelan migrants who have returned home after losing jobs and livelihoods in neighbouring Colombia has reached an estimated 52,000 – almost 3 percent of all those who had settled in Colombia.

Some of those Venezuelan migrants as well as Colombians displaced by the conflict have been evicted from a shanty town in Bogotá – despite the national quarantine and the Ministry of Housing banning evictions until June – after it was declared illegal by local authorities. Of the 1,000 families that lived there, the remaining residents claim to number only 100, with those evicted having been victims of excessive force on the part of the police. Many had fallen into unemployment due to Covid and have not received the support the government promised. The evicted residents have been offered accommodation in a refuge, but in the times of Coronavirus, this is hardly an appealing consolation.

Indigenous people

Fears amongst and for indigenous people continue to increase as Covid-19 has reportedly reached 38 groups in Brazil, as of 15May. The Brazilian Indigenous Peoples’ Association has found 446 cases and 92 deaths due to coronavirus amongst those groups. One of the victims, Messias Kokama, was the chief of the Parque das Tribos community near Manaus, who passed away last week. 

In Mexico, the human rights commission, activists, and academics have made demands to stop the building of the Mayan train. The project aims to connect tourist sites in the Yucatán Península and the Atlantic Coast. The work has continued during the pandemic, despite not being ‘essential work’, threatening to bring Coronavirus to local communities and indigenous groups. 

Politics under pressure

Brazil’s political turmoil continues as the second health minister resigns after less than a month in the role. Nelson Teich had assumed the post after Luis Mandetta’s dismissal in mid-April, due to disagreements with President Bolsonaro over the importance of social distancing. Teich initially suggested he would follow Bolsonaro’s line of upholding the economy by keeping restrictions lax. However, over recent weeks, the health minister and the president’s positions increasingly diverged. At the end of April, Teich had announced ‘nobody is thinking about relaxation’. The final straw came when at a press televised conference where Teich appeared unaware that Bolsonaro had made gyms, beauty salons and barbers essential services.

The leader of the opposition socialist party, Alessandro Molon, said, ‘Bolsonaro doesn’t want a technical minister He wants someone who agrees with his ideological madness, like ending social distancing and the use of chloroquine.’

In Nicaragua, suspicions are increasing over the real number of Covid cases in the country. Although in recent weeks the official count has steadily increased, the count has stopped. As of 21 May, there were 279 reported cases and 17 reported deaths. However, dozens have died over the past few weeks from a ‘mysterious pneumonia’.

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Families have reported loved ones being buried by authorities in secret. Others who have died have been rushed away, without flowers or mariachi bands as is typical, including baseball legend Alberto Paraíso Mendoza. The victims are buried in sealed black bags, in a sealed coffin, and without a ceremony, as are those who die due to coronavirus. Videos have also emerged of people in white protective suits carrying coffins to the cemetery to be buried, often at night.

Without official recognition of the extent of the virus in the country, measures cannot be taken to limit it and health workers are frighteningly exposed.

Argentinian network C5N’s accusation of Chile’s misleading figures

There have been accusations that figures in Chile are misleadingly low too. The Argentinian news channel C5N, claimed the official number of deaths due to Covid to be a lie. It was claimed that the figure does not include those who had not been formally diagnosed with coronavirus, instead noting the cause of death as another respiratory illness, breaking WHO guidelines. Experts of the Chilean Academy of Sciences had previously reported that this was not the case, and that the number of cases in Chile could be multiplied by up to five times the reported number.

The criticism emerged as it was noted that countries with similar numbers of cases had four or ten times the number of deaths. The WHO representative in Chile, Fernando Leanes, dismissed the accusation and reaffirmed that Chile’s figures are in line with WHO guidelines. He claimed the difference in numbers between Chile and other countries is due to Chile’s high testing rates.

Economic hardship

Hospitals in Manaus, Brazil, are reported to be illegally charging between R$50,000 (around US$9000) and R$100,000 for Covid treatment to those without health plans. The law prohibits the demand of a deposit or guarantee as a condition for emergency medical attendance. However, the Ministry for Health does not provide a definition of what constitutes emergency care. The three hospitals where this has been reported – Santo Alberto, CheckUp, and Samel –  state, therefore, that they are complying with the law: treatment for covid-19, after the disease has been diagnosed, is not ‘emergency treatment’. People of Manaus, unable to pay the extortionate costs, are left to risk their lives and stay at home rather than seek treatment.

Also in Brazil, continued police raids in favelas are preventing the distribution of aid packages. One photographer commented, ‘Instead of sending doctors and nurses to protect residents from Covid-19, the government sends police, bullet-proof vehicles and helicopters to kill us.’

On Mother’s Day weekend, the NGO Rio de Paz was due to hand out food baskets in Jacarezinho, but had to cancel the distribution de to a shootout that left four wounded. At the end of April, a plan to distribute of 100 baskets of food and cleaning products to 15 favelas in Alemão by the grassroots collective “Gabinete de Crisis de Alemão” was prevented by a police raid. The police thought the truck containing the baskets had been stolen and the event soon turned into a shootout.

In Chile on Monday, around 100 protesters took to the streets of El Bosque, one of the poorest sectors of the capital Santiago. It came after a total quarantine was declared the Friday beforehand, due to a spike of 2,660 new cases. The demonstrators were not protesting quarantine, however, but hunger as the out-of-work residents struggle to buy food. According to the mayor of El Bosque, Sadi Melo, more than 10 percent of sectors and 20,000 people are in living extreme poverty.

Their demands echoed the estallido social that has swept the country since last October. Although the Government has introduced a range of measures to help mediate the financial impact of the crisis, including a promise to hand out 2.5 million aid baskets to the poorest in society and job protection schemes, measures have proven to be insufficient. Many Chileans have taken to social media to complain of how the state continues to prioritise profits, giving financial support to big business while people go hungry. The police retaliated to the protests with tear gas and water cannons.

See LAB’s latest report on how Chileans continue to demand dignity from their government during the pandemic here.

Venezuela, whose economic disaster continues to deepen, has filed a court claim to have its gold stores – worth €930 million and kept in the Bank of England – sold to the UN Development Program to help fund efforts against the virus. A request was initially made in the middle of April. However, as Britain is one of the 50 countries that do not recognise Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as the country’s legitimate leader, no response was given to the request.

In Costa Rica, where numbers of cases have been kept relatively low due to effective measures, the loss of tourism is having major effects on local livelihoods. Tourism makes up 99.5 percent of the Central American country according to the president of the Chamber of Tourism and South Caribbean Trade, and brings more money to the country than through its exports of coffee, fruit, and pharmaceuticals.

The Government has rolled out a financial support plan to those who were in informal employment before lockdown. However, the Costa Ricans who worked informally in the tourism sector are not included in the measure. Sevonne Newton, who set up one of the many recently sprung up food banks, estimates that 7000 people in Talamanca need food.

The desperate search for food adds a further threat to Costa Rica’s vital conservation efforts as locals take turtle eggs to sell or eat, while the absence of volunteers has closed conservation programmes.

Image taken from the tour company, Global Nomadic’s page advertising marine conservation projects for travellers. Photo: Global Nomadic.

Return to normal

Although Mexico saw a record number of new Covid cases on 21 May, plans to start reopening continue. The gradual reopening of the economy, initially in construction, mining, and transportation manufacturing industries, began on 18 May. The 324 so-called ‘municipalities of hope’, which have not recorded cases any new cases for 28 days and whose neighbours do not having rising numbers of cases, are also due to lift social isolation and restart the economy.

However, according to an investigation by the NGO México, ¿Cómo Vamos?, only two-thirds of the municipalities have actually carried out testing. Furthermore, many factories that have faced pressure to reopen from companies and US government officials lack the space to practise social distancing, do not have soap in bathrooms or eating areas, and lack ventilation – all of which are key to preventing the spread of the virus.

Restrictions are due to be lifted and school classes restarted across the rest of Mexico on 1 June.

Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 122, 22 May 2020.

Reports from some individual governments and unofficial sources suggest considerably higher figures.

Costa Rica88210
Dominican Republic13,477446
El Salvador1,57131
Puerto Rico2 866125

Emily Gregg is a LAB correspondent and author. She lived in Arica, Chile, until returning to the UK because of the pandemic, and wrote The Student Revolution chapter in LAB’s book Voices of Latin America (2019).