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Covid-19 in Latin America

A round-up of the incidence of coronavirus and the responses of governments



  • By Emily Gregg, with additional material from David Lehmann, Mike Gatehouse 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 on Monday 16 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.

The Coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world, totalling over 142,000 cases worldwide as of Saturday, has been late to arrive in Latin America. While its late arrival has allowed the region’s governments to take preventative measures to limit the spread of the virus, it poses threats and challenges to a region with high migration rates, high levels of inequality, often weak health care systems, and political turbulence.

The first cases and government responses

Argentina was the first Latin American country to report a death due to Covid-19. According to World Health Organisation figures, the country had 45 cases as of Monday (16 March). The initial measures enacted by the government include the suspension of classes at all levels of education, from primary schools to universities, for two weeks. A 14-day quarantine has also been instated for anyone entering Argentina from an infected country and non-resident foreigners that have been in Covid-19 affected areas within two weeks before arriving are prevented entry.

In Colombia too, citizens and members of diplomatic missions who have visited China, Italy, France or Spain are to put themselves into preventative isolation for two weeks while public events of more than 500 people are suspended, as is the national football championship, and the Cine Colombia chain. University entrance exams (ICFES) have been postponed.

Latin America announces preventive measures to confront the health crisis of Covid-19. Video: France 24 Espanol, 13 March 2020

The start of the school year in Peru has been postponed until the end of March and all flights from Europe and Asia have been suspended for at least a month. On Sunday, it was announced that its borders were to be closed in the early hours of Monday morning, leading to long queues at the crossings as people desperately tried to get home.

The interim Bolivian president announced on Saturday that passengers coming from China, Korea, Italy, and Spain would be denied entry, while flights to and from Europe and events of more than 1000 people would be suspended.

Guatemala and Honduras have both announced a ban on the entry of people coming from the same countries, as well as Italy, Spain, Germany, and France.

El Salvador has not yet reported any cases although it is unclear whether tests have been carried out, meaning that the virus could in fact be present. The government has nonetheless imposed a national quarantine of 21 days, the suspension of classes and large events such as concerts and sporting events, and the ban on entry of foreigners. The Salvadorean Roman Catholic cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez and the city of Santa Tecla’s mayor, Roberto d’Aubisson, were both subjected to quarantine upon returning to the country.

Politics over prevention

Despite various measures to ban large events, politics has remained a priority in Mexico, Nicaragua and Brazil, leading the Chilean newspaper La Tercera to dub the three presidents ‘Los presidentes “porfiados” con el coronavirus” [the presidents who got stubborn with coronavirus].

Covid-19 in Latin America. Video: Contra-Replica, Mexico, 1 March 2020

In Mexico, president López Obrador has been criticised on social media for continuing his signature practice of hugging and kissing his supporters, including children, at an event in Costa Chica de Guerrero during a presidential tour, and despite apparently being asked by his health minister to refrain from doing so. Various Mexican State Governors have taken measures such as shutting schools and universities to different degrees and Jalisco has just banned big events.

The government is offering free testing to suspected patients who have completed a primary screening of questions asking with whom the patient has been in contact. However, the Government’s unresolved failure to secure medication contracts for the year leave those with metabolic and cardiovascular diseases at particular threat.

In Nicaragua, where no cases had yet been detected, vice-president Rosario Murillo called on supporters to join in a national mobilisation called ‘Love in times of Covid-19’ (presumably a reference to the 1985 Gabriel García Márquez novel El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera). ‘Throughout the country we are going to walk with the strength of faith and hope, in constant prayer and solidarity withy all the peoples, families and brothers across the world who are affected by coronavirus,’ she said. In response, thousands of Sandistas turned out to a marchin Managua.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro reached out to touch supporters at a pro-government demonstration of some 8,000 supporters in Brasilia and posed for selfies on the demonstrators’ phones. The rally was originally called and hugely promoted by the Brazilian president to protest against the Congress and the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro attended, despite having eventually discouraged attendance because of Coronavirus. Meanwhile Fabio Wajngarten, the president’s press secretary, who accompanied him to meetings in Florida with Donald Trump, had tested positive for the virus. Bolsonaro himself was rumoured to have tested positive but this was swiftly denied on his Facebook page.

The governor of the Rio de Janeiro state, Wilson Witzel, who had banned large gatherings in the state as a preventative measure of the virus, was subject to particular attack during the demonstrations as protestors stamped on his campaign placards.

While some protestors wore masks with the image or colours of the Brazilian flag, shouts of Coronavirus being a ‘myth’ were heard, a chilling indicator of the level of misinformation (aka fake news) in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Disturbingly, a report published on Sunday by researchers at Oxford university has suggested that Bolsonaro’s irresponsibility in encouraging such demonstrations and reluctance to impose preventative measures could result in 478,000 deaths.

Nonetheless the Federal Government has committed R $5 billion (US $1 billion) to Congress to combat transmission and reduced import taxes on certain medical products. However, it is not clear where the funding will be directed. A survey by Agência Pública has highlighted the uneven distribution of intensive care unit beds in Brazil, which are necessary to treat serious cases of Coronavirus. Eighty percent of Brazil’s health regions do not meet the WHO’s recommendations for numbers of ICU beds, many of which lie in the North and Northeast of the country.

In Chile, which has reported 61 cases as of 16 March (although the real figure is estimated to be much higher), two schools in Santiago were closed last week and their staff and students quarantined. Public events of more than 500 people have been suspended throughout the country. Yesterday (15March), it was announced that all schools are to be closed for two weeks.

The Coronavirus has arrived at a convenient time for the Chilean government in the context of the social upheaval and protests against the government and Chile’s neoliberal system that started in October. The demonstrations had eased off over the summer but reignited with the start of the academic year and the advent of the controversial referendum to create a new constitution that will take place in April. It remains to be seen if Coronavirus fears will deter the protestors from taking to the streets in demonstrations that have previously seen gatherings of thousands.

The Chilean government’s promise of US $64 million for medical equipment and costs to deal with the virus may also serve to bolster the argument of the protestors for better healthcare and the end of the privatised system.

In Paraguay, although only having six reported cases as of Friday, the Government has approved US $80 million for medical supplies and equipment and is seeking a further US $150 million in loans from World and Interamerican banks to support the health system. The Ministry for Industry and Commerce has fixed prices for items such as alcohol gel, masks and gloves.

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The Vizcarra administration in Peru has dedicated an extra US $75 million extra funding to the health system to deal with Covid-19, although there remain fears that Peru’s poorly equipped health system may become overwhelmed.

Venezuela: Other countries in the region face even more serious complications. Venezuelans and Cubans, whose countries already face shortages of basic goods and medical supplies thanks to economic sanctions, have been asked by their governments to make their own masks, with the Venezuelan state television channel airing a tutorial of how to make them with wet wipes.

Some pharmacies in Caracas bear signs that say they do not have masks or hand sanitiser; others limit the goods to one per customer. Five have been arrested in Venezuela for ‘hoarding’ masks; others are reselling them at prices that exceed the funds of most citizens.

In Haiti, although there are no cases as of 15 March, an outbreak would pose a particular threat due to healthcare systems that depend on external agencies and the ongoing political crisis that continues to weaken internal health infrastructure. The Haitian Government has closed its border with the Dominican Republic which, with a strong tourism industry, has announced 11 cases of the virus. However, with 160,000 cases of HIV, the highest rate of tuberculosis in the Americas, and densely populated towns, the potential for Coronavirus to spread in Haiti and to have lethal effects is overwhelming.

The economic outlook

Covid-19 and the measures enacted to prevent its spread also pose threats to the economies of several countries, who have burgeoning tourism industries or who already rely substantially on tourism as flights are cancelled and entry is restricted.

Brazil has seen a 30% decline in domestic airline bookings and 50% in international airline bookings leading to the Government to consider a delay in the deadlines for payment of taxes by airlines and reducing the airlines’ liability to compensate passengers for cancelled flights.

Colombia has also recognised the need to reduce taxes and grant credit to tourism and flight agencies, who have been especially affected by the international economic drop. Tourist sites such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have also been closed to protect the indigenous populations from the virus, especially in consideration of the absence of the state and poor health systems in those regions.

Across the (partially closed) border to Ecuador, tourists have been forbidden from entering the Yasuní National Park to protect its communities and biodiversity. To enter the Galapagos, foreign and national tourists alike must carry out preventative isolation.

Argentina has similarly closed its main nature tourist attractions, including the Iguazú waterfalls.

The Brazilian border closures could have a serious effect on the major ‘shopping tourism’ sector in Paraguay, as Brazilians will no longer be crossing the border to buy cheaper goods in cities such as Ciudad del Este, Pedro Juan Caballero, Salto de Guairá. In addition to the retail workers already laid off in the formal economy but who are unable to claim sick pay due to the country’s weak labour laws, it could lead to major job losses for workers with minimal labour rights.

Measures have been taken in Paraguay to cushion the impact, including a cut on interest rates from 4% to 3.75% and the suspension of fines on late taxes. Extra money has also been dedicated to the Tekoporã social payment scheme, which provides payments to poorer families, and a few politicians have offered to donate a month’s salary to help, but otherwise there is little protection for poorer Paraguayan workers.

Similarly in Bolivia, with a lack of a social system to support society’s vulnerable people and where around 80% of the population are self-employed or work as street vendors, many will have to continue to work despite the quarantine.

Furthermore, the weak Bolivian health system does not provide for the poor, especially indigenous people and street vendors. Pre-existing difficulties in the procurement of medicines could also worsen or dramatically force prices up. Corruption and hostility in some departments against the central government, following the resignation or ousting of Evo Morales further threaten Bolivia’s capability to deal with the virus.

It is widely expected that the provisional government of Jeanine Añez, in place since October 2019, will take the opportunity to postpone the presidential and congressional elections, due to be held on 3 May.

Cross-border issues

The virus also has serious implications for the region’s migrants. The Colombian government ordered the closure of its border with Venezuela on Friday through which many Venezuelans pass, escaping the shortages and persecution in their own country.

Guatemala has announced measures to limit travel northwards too. The temperatures of those crossing the border from Honduras will be taken, and anyone suspected of having the virus will be refused entry.

The director of migrant rights group Fonamih in Honduras, Karen Valladeres, has highlighted the particular threat of Coronavirus to migrants, whose immune systems are weakened by lack of sleep and food, and who spend large amounts of time in large groups and confined conditions in camps, centres, and shelters, and who travel in caravans.

She also highlights that the deportation of migrants from the US and Mexico threaten to increase the spread of Covid-19. Valladeres calls for migrants to be tested before being put on a bus or a plane where there is a high likelihood of passing the virus on. Honduras has suspended repatriation flights for these reasons. Deportees arriving in El Salvador will be sent to a special quarantine facility.

Measures are being stepped up day by day as the threat continues to become more serious. Argentina is expected to make an official announcement encouraging general self-isolation, a 10-day lockdown, and nationwide quarantine.

The best the region can do for now, as anywhere, is prevent the spread of the virus. However, with limited resources in many areas, poor administration in others, and political complications in others still, Coronavirus could have major impacts in Latin America.

Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 55, 16 March 2020

Argentina45230 day ban on entry from affected countries.
Flights stopped from US, South Korea, Japan, China & Iran.
Main tourist attractions close, inc. Iguazu. 10 day lockdown & nationwide quarantine expected 16 MarchSpecial provision for 2-week self-isolation of workers returning from affected areas2-week suspension of classes in all educational institutions
Bolivia30No entry from China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. Flights to and from Europe suspended. Border with Argentina closed.No public events with >1000 people. Extended to all events and public activities inc. bars, cinemas, gyms and sports from 16 March. Offices to close at 3pmTaxes on drugs and other necessities eliminated. Businesses asked to help families cope.All classes suspended until 31 March
Brazil1210No gatherings >100 people. Bars & restaurants to keep people at 2m distance. Sports behind closed doors.R$5bn to combat transmission. ’13th month’ payments due in July advanced to April. Reduced taxes on medical products. Reduced max intererest rate for Social Security BeneficiariesPublic and private university classes suspended.
Chile61014-day quarantine for those entering from high-risk countries Only essential events allowed with <100 attendees. Football matches behind closed doorsSome tax reductions and credit lines for tourism and airlinesUniversity entrance exams postponed
Colombia2402-week self-isolation for entrants from China, Italy, France or Spain. Closed border with Venezuela. From 16 march all entry from Europe and Asia suspendedEvents >500 banned. Football championship sustpended. Cine Colombia to close theatres for 10 dayTax reductions and credits for tourism agencies and airlinesUniversity exams postponed
Costa Rica230‘At risk’ education centres to shut for at least 14 days
Dominican Republic50Public and private classes suspended from 16 or 17 March to disinfect schools
Ecuador230Ban 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 Salvador00Entry 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
GuatemalaEntry 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
Honduras20Avoid unnecessary travel. Restricted entry from China, Japan, S.Korea, Iran, Italy, France, Germany, SpainAll public events suspended
Mexico410Events >5000 people postponed from 23 March to 19 April. Public activities >1000 suspendedAll classes suspended 20 March to 20 April
Panama271State of Emergency to allocate resources in health, security & the economy. Meaures to prevent hoarding and price profiteering
Paraguay60Some 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
Peru430from 11 March controls on arrivals from Italy, Spain, France & China. From 12 March all flights from Europe and Asia from at least 1 mont. Closed borders 16 March Events >300 bannedUS$75 million for health system. Zero tariffs on medical importsStart of school year postponed until end-March
Puerto Rico30
Venezuela20Flights suspended from Colombia, Europe, Panama & Dominican Republic. Obligatory quarantine for all travellers from Europe in March

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).