COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Deadly Virus in a Vulnerable Region

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Date: Apr 22, 2020

Authors: Lisa Haugaard, Antonio Saadipour Sellés

The coronavirus outbreak is starting to seriously affect life in Latin America and the Caribbean.  As in the United States, the impact is highly unequal. At the Latin America Working Group, we are documenting the effect of COVID-19 on Latin America and advocating for U.S. policies that help to address, not aggravate, the pandemic’s impact. And right now, several U.S. policies are adding to the damage, including thousands of deportations that risk spreading the virus and harm vulnerable women, men, and children.

On April 8, 2020, 260 experts in public health and demography wrote an open letter to the governments of Latin America and international public health organizations urging a dramatic increase in testing and tracing in the region. According to the experts, Latin America is particularly vulnerable to the virus “given the epidemiological profile of the population, the precarious healthcare infrastructure, and the large income inequality in the region. These conditions will dramatically exacerbate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the number of infected people, deaths from the virus, overload of the health system, and general wellbeing of the population.” 

Latin America invests less in healthcare than most regions of the world: $949 per capita every year, almost four times below the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) countries’ average of $3,973. Latin America has fewer than 2 hospital beds per 100,000 inhabitants (indeed, countries such as Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua have fewer than 1), compared to approximately 3 for Spain or Italy, which still found their hospitals overwhelmed. The potential impact of COVID-19 on Venezuela’s devastated health care system and on Venezuelan migrants and refugees in surrounding countries is frightening.  

A number of regional governments, such as Peru, Colombia, and El Salvador, reacted quickly to the pandemic with measures to flatten the curve—although some of their policies raised concerns. While many governments moved quickly to close airports and borders and set social distancing guidelines, others, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Nicaragua, were slower to react. Cuba increased its medical missions which were welcomed even by governments that had recently sent Cuban doctors home (see our blog, Cuba: A Lesson in Crisis Management).  

Brazilian President Bolsonaro minimized the threat of the illness, referring to it as a “little flu” and attacking the media for its coverage of the pandemic. He has defied strict guidelines announced by his own health minister, encouraging Brazilians to get back to work and participating in a rally surrounded by hundreds of his supporters. Bolsonaro even unsuccessfully attempted to bar state and local governments from instituting social distancing policies. On April 16, he fired his health minister and replaced him with a doctor focused on reopening the economy (see our blog, Brazil: A Tale of Two Crises).

As Latin America and the Caribbean face the crisis, we should keep a close watch on several issues:  Whether governments resort to repressive or anti-democratic measures; how governments deal with three economic vulnerabilities of the region, the extensive informal sector and the dependence of some nations on remittances and tourism; and the impact on vulnerable populations, including indigenous persons, women, and LGBTQ+ persons. These are described below, followed by the U.S. policy response.

Repressive or Anti-Democratic Measures

Some governments have taken advantage of the pandemic to institute unnecessary authoritarian measures. Honduras suspended constitutional guarantees, including for human rights defenders and journalists; Military Police and police detained over 6,000 people and on numerous occasions lobbed tear gas at people protesting for food and medicine (see our blog, Honduras: Repression in the Time of COVID-19). Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele told the armed forces to “get harsher with people in the street” who were not following quarantine rules, authorizing up to 30 days of detention. Over 1200 people were detained as of April 8. On April 15, Bukele announced via twitter that he would not abide by a Constitutional Court ruling that security forces should not jail violators of quarantine unless the legislature established clear guidance for doing so. Human Rights Watch criticized “an overly broad provision” in an emergency decree banning false information issued by Bolivia’s interim President Jeannine Áñez “that could be used to punish those who criticize government policies.” A delay in scheduled elections allows her to extend her term.

Ecuador, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are among the countries that granted the armed forces an extensive role in enforcing curfews and maintaining public order.

In Colombia, human rights defenders warned that illegal armed groups are using the distraction of the pandemic to escalate attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders. A unilateral ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas was welcomed, but it has not stopped the deadly toll against social leaders. The quarantine has complicated peace accord implementation, postponing some vital outreach to victims by the Truth Commission, for example, likely making it necessary to extend its short timeline.

Three issues complicate the economic impact in Latin America and the Caribbean:

Lack of policies for the informal sector. Over half of non-agricultural employment in Latin America is in the informal sector and remains largely uncovered by national labor laws and government benefits, while even many of those in the formal sector lack benefits and labor protections. People who earn their living as street vendors, market sellers, domestic help, and tradespeople often live day to day with few reserves. Those in the informal sector are already in desperate straits after several weeks of quarantine and curfew, and many will make the choice to risk violating restrictions to survive. “If I stay home, I’ll starve,” a 64-year-old Salvadoran market woman told online magazine El Faro. 

Yet few governments have yet successfully applied COVID-19 benefits to their country’s informal sector. Many governments have applied restrictions to informal market vendors while allowing supermarkets and other established stores to continue sales. Argentina, El Salvador, and Chile are among countries that have created payouts that include informal sector workers, although they are struggling with how to implement them, and the help they provide is limited. A program in El Salvador to provide $300 payments to people affected by the crisis caused confusion and public health risks as thousands of people without access to bank accounts or internet crowded into government offices to obtain the subsidy. 

Remittances.  Latin America receives $100 billion per year in remittances sent by families abroad. As those families abroad lose their employment, remittances could drop some 7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a conservative estimate by the Inter-American Dialogue.  Countries with the greatest percentage of remittances per GDP would be the most affected, such as Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic.

Dependence on tourism revenues. For Caribbean nations in particular, but also some Central American nations, the impact of COVID-19 drying up tourism revenues will have a substantial impact. Eleven of the world’s most tourism-dependent nations are in the Caribbean.

Impact on Indigenous Persons, Women and LGBTQ+ Persons—and Inequality

Particularly concerning is the impact of the pandemic on Latin America’s indigenous peoples. More than a dozen indigenous groups had reported cases of COVID-19 by April 9. The UN expert on indigenous persons warned that indigenous communities, already facing conflicts over land and resources, may be at the mercy of additional conflict as people fight for access to water and food. Indigenous communities across Latin America issued a plea for protection from COVID-19, including the right to limit access to their territories. In Colombia, the Wayuu people, already facing drought and widespread malnutrition, lack health care to address COVID-19. Quarantine restrictions remove their access to employment as many travel to cities to work in the informal sector. They face threats and attacks by paramilitary and guerrilla groups.  

In many parts of Latin America, women’s organizations warned that stay at home orders would trap women with abusive partners. They cautioned that it would be difficult for women to report violence as well as escape from it. The discrimination in health care often faced by LGBTQ+ persons in many parts of the region is a complicating factor for the LGBTQ+ community. Transgender persons risked detentions in places such as Peru and Panama which mandated days when women or men could leave their homes, although Bogotá, Colombia’s LGBTQ+ mayor Claudia López declared transgender persons could choose their days according to their preferred gender.

Finally, the pandemic is exposing, as in the United States, the gaping inequality in Latin America.  “In the end, what is going to kill us is the virus of inequity, the virus that feeds inequality and keeps 7 out of 10 people living in poverty and extreme poverty,” said Guatemalan human rights defender Iduvina Hernandez. “We die because… a few have eaten all the bread and many are left only with the crumbs.” 

The United States’ Response

The United States’ response to the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America is absolutely shameful. The White House insisted on continuing deportations during the crisis, sending deportees without proper COVID-19 screening to countries unprepared to receive them, where migrant shelters and public transport were closed (see our blog, Protecting Asylum Seekers & Migrants during a Global Pandemic). 

The U.S. government also reportedly blocked shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) to some Latin American and Caribbean nations. While it seems understandable that countries limit exports to ensure their own public health needs are met, this will have a disproportionate impact on poor nations without adequate PPE supply.

Intensified sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela remain in place despite UN recommendations from the UN Secretary General and the UN human rights chief to ease up on sanctions due to humanitarian concerns during the pandemic.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Trump Administration launched a new drug war program, “one of the largest U.S. military operations in the region since the 1989 invasion of Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power,” according to the Associated Press (AP). The AP noted, “The goal is to nearly double the U.S. counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.” This massive deployment will include areas close to Venezuela’s territorial waters and airspace. While announced at a White House coronavirus briefing as a response to drug traffickers’ plans to take advantage of the crisis, it seems unlikely to be related to the pandemic, having been in the works for months.

The Congress included additional funding for a global response to COVID-19 in the first and third supplemental spending packages to address the pandemic, for a total of $1.1 billion to date in global health, disaster assistance, and refugee aid. This is just starting to get allocated to Latin American countries. In Central America, the administration is finally releasing a portion of the over $500 million frozen by the Trump Administration since mid-2019 due to President Trump’s anger over continued refugee flows from the region, though the exact distribution of these funds remains unclear. While U.S. humanitarian aid and global health aid to the region will be welcome, the more visible U.S. responses are: escalating counternarcotics operations, sanctions, and deportations.