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Covid-19 in Latin America – 24 March update

Update on the incidence of coronavirus and the responses of governments



  • 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 overview of the spread of coronavirus across the region and the reaction of governments and politicians. 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 63 on Monday 23 March. Where figures appear in the images within the article, they may refer to several days earlier.
  • 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

The effects and impact of coronavirus in Latin America have become more apparent over the last week, as numbers of confirmed cases have rocketed and the region has reported many more deaths.  However, the increasing numbers compound concerns for large sectors of Latin America’s populations, especially the poor and indigenous communities, and there are some governments, notably Brazil, Chile and Mexico, where it seems that not enough is being done to fight the spread of Covid-19. 

In lock-down

Many governments have extended preventative measures, enforcing total quarantine and curfews, as well as provisions to mediate the economic impact of the virus.

Argentina entered total quarantine from Friday 20 March until the end of the month.

The same day, Colombia announced that a 19-day quarantine would be enforced from 24 March and ordered that all people over the age of 70 remain in their houses until the end of May. The Mayor of Bogotá had already enforced a four-day quarantine in the city over the weekend.

In Paraguay, the President has declared an extension of the curfew originally planned to end on 25 March. There will now be a 24 hour curfew until 12 April. Due to the high number of cases of people breaking the quarantine, which has led to 130 arrests, the government has announced that a state of emergency could be declared if people continued to flout the rules.

However, Alberto Ruíz of the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Sociales del Bañado Tacumbú (COBAT) has criticised the government’s lockdown. He says that the people have to go out to not die of hunger in Tacumbú, one of Asunción’s flood prone Bañados neighbourhoods which are some of the poorest in the country, due to longer term structural failures.

Ruíz cites the lack of investment by successive governments in health and education, and says that the people have not seen the benefit of the $300 million the World Bank sent to the Paraguayan Government. He says:

‘This is our reality: we have to fight this virus, but the much bigger virus, and which has always been harmful, is the pathetically corrupt government.’

In Peru, there have been 8,000 arrests for not obeying the tight restrictions imposed this week.

The interim Bolivian government has also imposed an obligatory 14-day quarantine. However, many continue to leave their houses due to misinformation, the lack of information in indigenous languages of Quechua and Aymara, and conspiracy theories which claim that coronavirus is a ploy to postpone the elections.

After the eviction of Evo Morales last November following accusations of electoral fraud, Bolivia has been governed by an interim government led by the far-right Jeanine Áñez, who promised to hold new elections, due to take place on 3 May. However, due to Covid-19, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has announced that they will be suspended. A new date is yet to be scheduled.

In Chile too, the constitutional referendum due to take place 26 April has been provisionally postponed until 26 October, pending a two-thirds approval from Congress. The referendum was called in response to the wave of protests that took hold of the country last October, in which protesters demanded pension, healthcare, and education reform, and a new constitution to replace the current one which dates back to the Pinochet-era.

After taking a summer break, protesters renewed demonstrations at the beginning of March. The outbreak of Coronavirus, however, has meant many now stay at home. However, as the local governments take advantage of their absence to clear protest art sculptures from the epicentre of the demonstrations – Plaza Italia (now commonly named Plaza de la Dignidad) – there is a concern that outraged protesters may return.

Quarantine? There’s no need to be hysterical

The absence of protesters in Chile is not due to a government-imposed quarantine, but to social pressure. Mayors of several of the comunas of Santiago where Covid-19 is more abundant have called for a quarantine, and regional leaders have called for the closure of interregional borders to prevent the spread of the virus in the country that has the most confirmed cases per capita in Latin America.

‘A quarantine would lead to much harm’, the words of Health Minister Mañalich. Video: AQB 21 March 2020.

Nonetheless, the Chilean government has discounted the need for a quarantine. In a speech that quickly went viral on social media and has further discredited a government with record low approval ratings, the health minister, Jaime Mañalich, announced a quarantine would not be enforced due to the possibility that the virus could ‘turn into a good guy’ and cause nothing worse than a cold. Instead, a night-time curfew between 10pm and 5am came into force on Sunday.

Likewise in Mexico, President López Obrador has said that there is no need for alarm and has continued to hold public meetings across the country. Instead, it has fallen on local leaders to ask the population to reduce its interaction with others, while gyms hold classes through videocalls and companies are taking the responsibility to check the temperature of their staff.

The Health Secretary has recommended a 28-day suspension of all non-essential public, social, and private activities as of 23 March.

In Brazil, the Bolsonaro government continues to dismiss the severity of the virus and its threat to the population, which has 904 confirmed cases of the virus (according to the World Health Organisation’s situation report number 63, 23 March). The Brazilian president has expressed the view that ‘hysteria’ will cause more damage than the virus, due to the economic impact of shutting down cities.

Nonetheless, the governor of Sao Paulo, the business hub of Brazil that contributes to almost a third of the entire country’s economic production, announced a 14-day quarantine from 24 March to 7 April. The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro also declared a quarantine.

The lack of response and action from central government has led to record lows in approval levels for Bolsonaro this week, according to a poll by XP Investimentos. Those who have taken to self-isolation from across the country have expressed their discontent by holding ‘panelaços’ or pot-banging protest from their houses. The tradition of protesting by banging pots originated during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, when people could not leave their homes so took to protesting from inside instead. Now it is a widespread practice in Latin America.

Video: Rede TVT, 18 March 2020

An evangelical church in Rio de Janeiro even won a court case to remain open allowing it to hold a mass of 1,500 people on Thursday. Elsewhere in the world, religious leaders have closed places of worship and or are transmitting services online, including Pope Francis. Bolsonaro, who finds a close ally in Pastor Silas Malafia, head of the Assembly of God Victory in Christ church that won the case, had described the idea of closing churches ‘absurd’.

The leader of Brazil’s biggest evangelical church, Bishop Edir Macedo, told his followers that the pandemic is an economic conspiracy and that the coronavirus is the devil fomenting fear, and so there was no need to worry.

Both churches have enforced sanitary measures, including the provision of soap and water, hand sanitiser, and increased distances between worshippers.

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The threat to Brazil’s indigenous communities

As evangelical Christians have gained more influence under Bolsonaro’s presidency, their mission to convert combined with the Brazilian central government’s reluctance to control the spread of Covid-19 poses a serious threat to the isolated indigenous communities in the country.

One group, the New Tribes missionaries, who have established the helicopter they bought in January after a donation campaign at a base next to the Javari Valley reserve with the aim of reaching ‘new populations’, by which they mean uncontacted indigenous groups.

The 1987 no-contact policy enforced by the government’s indigenous agency, Funai, should prevent any attempt to evangelise the people in the reserve. However, the son of the leader of the New Tribes Missionaries, Edward Mantoanelli Luz, although not part of the group himself, has suggested that the no-contact policy will end.

The policy was enforced after the communities were almost wiped out by the arrival of disease brought by outsiders. The 100 isolated indigenous communities in Brazil are highly vulnerable to viruses and diseases that are common outside of their territories, including the flu. As such, Covid-19 is likely to have a serious impact and the potential to kill entire tribes.

Univaja, the indigenous association of the Javari Valley which is home to 16 isolated indigenous groups, has demanded action against the missionaries to protect the communities against decimation.

Similarly, two suspected Covid-19 cases amongst mine workers in the northern state of Pará threaten local quilombo communities located up to 12 hours from the nearest hospital.

The mining company for whom the suspected patients work for, Mineração Rio do Norte, MRN, have issued a statement in which they outline that no more of their workers will enter the village until the end of March. The suspects are both in isolation awaiting confirmation of their tests.

Overcrowding and poor sanitation: Favelas and Prisons

Brazil’s poor are also set to be hit hard by the virus. For the 13 million who live in the favelas, the basic preventive measures such as avoiding crowded spaces and washing your hands are not so simple.

Likewise, there is concern for the imprisoned population, who are 35 times more likely to suffer from tuberculosis, another respiratory disease. Alongside the overcrowded conditions and poor sanitation, the virus would thrive in the prisons. According to Pública, only 60% of prisons have medical officers while around half do not have a pharmacy and 81% do not have a decontamination room.

The infectious disease doctor at the UFMG School of Medicine and president of the Brazilian Society of Bioethics, Dirceu Greco, has expressed his concern that this sector of the population, which could easily be isolated from the virus, is instead excluded from of the concerns of the public sector.

As visitors, prisoners and officers leave and enter the prisons daily, the virus could easily enter with them. Restrictions on visits have been put in place in order to limit the entrance of the virus, but these visits are often the only occasion when the prisoners receive hygiene products. Restrictions on Easter leave provoked rebellions in prisons, including one last Monday (16 March) in Mongaguá penitentiary, Sao Paulo.

Prisoners escape from São Paulo prisons after coronavirus restrictions imposed. Video: 17 March 2020

The inmates of a Bogotá prison also rioted on Sunday in protest of their sanitary conditions during the outbreak. The Colombian justice minister, Cabello Blanco, denied that this was the motive since “There is not one infection nor any prisoner or custodial or administrative staffer who has coronavirus.”


We expressed concern in last week’s article for the potential implications of the arrival of Covid-19 in Haiti, which until then had no reported cases, because of the high rates of HIV and tuberculosis in the country alongside a weak public health system. On 19 March, Haitian authorities announced their first two cases.

The government responded with an array of measures to limit social interaction and any further spread of the virus. However, the failure of the government to communicate the measures well and doubts over their efficacy have raised criticism. The day after the cases were announced, workers were still travelling on crowded buses, children arrived at schools to find they were shut, and many factories remained open.

Unions and grassroots organisations have demanded the government improve its communication methods and bring in measures to allow people to practise social distancing, including wage subsidies and food and medicine distribution.

Antony Stewart, of the UK-based Haiti Support Group, believes the dramatic turn of events that is being named the ‘Limonade Incident’ demonstrates the government’s communications failures. The events unravelled after Nelson Ballamy, a professor at the University of Limonade, developed a high fever upon returning from a trip to the US. His attempts to call the emergency numbers received no response. Instead, his neighbours threatened to burn his house down, and sent him death threats.

Due to his position, he was well-informed about the symptoms and self-quarantined, and his connections from the university allowed him to try to get treatment. He was attacked when an ambulance eventually took him to one hospital, and had to wait over an hour at the courtyard of the second. He ultimately tested negative, but as Antony mentions, his difficulties suggests bleak prospects for Haitians.

International Cooperation

Cuba, although the country has also seen a rise in the number of cases, has continued its practice of sending medical staff around the world to help in times of crisis. Already, teams have been sent to Jamaica, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Suriname, and Granada. On Saturday, a team of 36 doctors, 15 nurses, and a logistical expert arrived in Lombardy, the Italian region worst-hit by the virus and which faces a shortage of medical staff as a result. The British government is also indebted to the Cubans for allowing the cruise ship Braemar to dock at the port of Mariel and evacuate some 670 passengers.

Despite medicine shortages and the state of disrepair of many of its hospitals, the small Caribbean island has one of the highest ratios of doctors per capita in the world, at 8.2 per 1,000 residents.

Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 63, 23 March 2020. Reports from some individual governments and unofficial sources suggest considerably higher figures.

Argentina225430 day ban on entry for non-resident foreigners who have been in affected countries in last2 weeks.
Flights stopped from US, South Korea, Japan, China & Iran.
Government to enable Argentine nationals to return from affected countries
Total quarantine 20-31 March. Key workers allowed essential journeys. Small local businesses allowed to open to provide basic supplies.
Main tourist attractions close, inc. Iguazu.
Special provision for 2-week self-isolation of workers returning from affected areas.
Annual interest rates reduced to max 24% on credit for companies, despite inflation likely to exceed 40% by end of year.
2-week suspension of classes in all educational institutions
Bolivia240No entry from China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. Flights to and from Europe suspended. Border with Argentina closed.2 week total quarantine 22 March – 4 April.
Factories, transport of basic goods, production centres, banks, pharmacies, hospitals and health services to continue as normal
Taxes on drugs and other necessities eliminated. Businesses asked to help families cope. President Añez guarantees no supply problems and markets open until midday.
‘Bono familiar’ to provide 500 Bolivianos (US$73) to families for each child in public school, to be paid in April.
Prices of basic services (light, water, gas, internet) to be discounted by 30%
All classes suspended until 31 March
Brazil90411No gatherings >100 people. Bars & restaurants to keep people at 2m distance. Sports behind closed doors.R$3.1bn increase to Bolsa Familia budget to benefit >1million families
R$5bn to combat transmission.
R$23bn for ’13th month’ payments to social security beneficiaries, due in July, advanced to April.
Reduced taxes on medical products.
Reduced max intererest rate for Social Security Beneficiaries
3-month postponement of federal taxes for companies.
A minimum wage and suspension of electricity, water and gas payments for poor workers in informal sector under discussion.
Public and private university classes suspended.
Chile632114-day quarantine for those entering from high-risk countries Curfew from 10pm – 5am started 22 March.
Only essential events allowed with <100 attendees. Football matches behind closed doors
CLP$220 million for medical equipment and costsAll classes suspended for 2 weeks from 16 March
Colombia19602-week self-isolation for entrants from China, Italy, France or Spain. Closed border with Venezuela. From 16 march all entry from Europe and Asia suspended19-day quarantine to start 24 March. Essential workers exempt.
Aged 70+ to stay at home until end-May.
Mayor of Bogota declared 4-day quarantine for city from 20 March.
Tax reductions and credits for tourism agencies and airlinesUniversity exams postponed.
All school and university classes supended.
Costa Rica1172‘At risk’ education centres to shut for at least 14 days
Dominican Republic722Public and private classes suspended from 16 or 17 March to disinfect schools
Ecuador5327Ban on all entry from abroad for 21 days from 9 March (10 March for nationals and residents). Tourists banned from Yasuni Nat.Park. Entry to Galagagos only for those who previously self-isolatedBan on all public and private events, inc. Easter processions, gyms, cinemas & theatres.Forbidden to take medical masks and soap out of country
El Salvador10Entry of foreigners banned. Nationals and foreign residents entering must quarantine for 30 days. Deportees from US will be sent do special quarantine unitNo gatherings >200 people. Concerts and sporting events suspendedSuspension of all classes for 21 days from 11 March
Guatemala181Entry of passengers from China, S.Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany suspended. Residents returning from these countries to self-isolate at homeUS$30 million for measures to deal with virus
Haiti00All flights from Europe, Canada and Dominican Republic suspended. Border with Dom Rep closed.
14-day quarantine for arrivals from high-risk countries or who have had contact with infected person
Factories and all places of worship closed. 1.5m social distancing recommended. Meetings >10 persons suspendedSchools closed
Honduras260Avoid unnecessary travel. Restricted entry from China, Japan, S.Korea, Iran, Italy, France, Germany, SpainAll public events suspended
Mexico2512Entry of Central American migrants into US to be regulated. Estimated no more than 100 per day.
Non-essential travel across US border restricted for 30 days from 21 March
Events >5000 people postponed from 23 March to 19 April. Mexico City: public activities >1000 suspendedEmergency fund of US$7,412m approved.
Central Bank cut interest rates
All classes suspended 20 March to 20 April
Panama2453State of Emergency to allocate resources in health, security & the economy. Meaures to prevent hoarding and price profiteering
Paraguay221Some borders closed to people (not goods) 16 March. All flights to and from Europe cancelled 14-26 MarchAll large events suspended for 15 days. National ‘stay-at-home’ campaign under way Prices fixed for alcohol gel, masks and gloves. US$80 million for medical supplies and equipment. Seeking $150 million loans from World and Interamerican banks. Interest rates cut from 4% to 3.75%. Extra money for Tekopora social payments. Fines on late tax payments suspendedClasses supended for 2 weeks from 10 March
Peru3182from 11 March controls on arrivals from Italy, Spain, France & China. From 12 March all flights from Europe and Asia from at least 1 month. Closed borders 16 March General quarantine 16-31 March. Night-time curfew enforced from 18 March
Events >300 banned
US$75 million for health system. Zero tariffs promised on medication and medical suppliesStart of school year postponed until end-March
Puerto Rico231
Venezuela700Flights suspended from Colombia, Europe, Panama & Dominican Republic. Obligatory quarantine for all travellers from Europe in MarchNightclubs and bars suspended. Restaurants take-away only.

Emily Gregg is a LAB correspondent and author, now based in Arica, Chile. She wrote The Student Revolution chapter in LAB’s book Voices of Latin America (2019).