Covid-19: Latin America’s deepest crisis for a century foments major change

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 27 July 2021

Image: Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 2020: People wait to receive food donations for lunch in a downtown street during the severe economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock.com

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, more than one million people have already died from Covid-19, making it the worst-hit region worldwide. The reasons are complex but, undeniably, have exposed deep inequalities across the region’s 33 countries.

Latin America’s excess death toll – those that exceed the number that normally occur over a given period – has rocketed. The failure by many countries to establish an effective public health strategy has been compounded by overwhelmed and underfunded health systems and social protection mechanisms that have not responded adequately to the enormity of the crisis.

The slow response – or in some instances complete inertia – of many nations has sealed their fate. ‘Governments in certain countries adopted a position of denying the pandemic and not establishing policies to control it,’ says Fernando Peláez-Pier, former IBA President and a senior consultant at FPeláez Consulting.

From the Colombian uprisings, the Peruvian elections to the Chilean constitution changes, our region seems to be longing for change

Adriana Castro
Young Lawyers' Initiatives Officer, IBA Latin American Regional Forum

He points to Mexico, where the authorities have been heavily criticised for failing to lockdown early enough and then for easing restrictions too quickly. The country is already paying the price: in July it attained the fourth highest death rate for coronavirus linked causes in the world.

The situation is even more alarming in Brazil, which accounts for more than half of the region’s Covid-19 fatalities and where management of the crisis has been highly politicised. After widespread disinformation and anti-vaccination rhetoric from the current administration, a vaccine-buying scandal triggered a parliamentary inquiry to examine President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

‘We are living in times that are indescribable,’ says Horacio Bernardes Neto, former IBA President and senior partner at Motta Fernandes Advogados in São Paulo. ‘President Bolsonaro has been boycotting the vaccination programme for a long time. He had the opportunity to buy vaccines in December, but he didn’t do it. He doesn’t take the vaccine. He goes everywhere without a mask. He wants to be re-elected. That’s all that he thinks about.’

Socio-economic factors have played a significant role. Peru imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the region, but this defied the logic that 70 per cent of the population work informally. Many lower income Peruvians had no choice but to go out to work. Infections soared and the country now has the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita worldwide.

Elsewhere, collective fatigue with the restrictions exacerbated long-standing public distrust in governments. Cuba initially won praise for keeping infections down in 2020 while first and second waves crippled many other nations. However, in mid-July the island reported the region’s highest rate of infection per capita and mass protests erupted over severe food and medical shortages, price hikes and the authorities’ Covid-19 response.

It’s a similar story in Colombia where a new wave of anti-government protests has contributed to a surge in cases. ‘Colombia was one of the first countries in Latin America to impose a lockdown, but after more than a year of restrictions people are exhausted,’ says Diana Guarnizo, a lawyer at Dejusticia, which works to strengthen the rule of law and promote human rights in the country. ‘Nobody paid attention to the latest lockdown measures. Some local governments felt it was impossible to implement them and then proceeded to open commercial and leisure venues.’

Unequal access to vaccines remains an immense challenge. Around 60 per cent of Chileans have been vaccinated, whereas in Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, only 15 per cent of the population are fully immunised. Peláez-Pier also points to a rise in so-called ‘vaccine tourism’, whereby many affluent Latin Americans have travelled to the US for vaccinations. This development looks set to only exacerbate the vaccine inequity across the region.

In lieu of any co-ordinated regional response to tackle the spread of the virus, Latin America needs much more international support, says Adriana Castro, Young Lawyers' Initiatives Officer of the IBA Latin American Regional Forum and a partner at BLP Abogados in San José . It was welcome news then in June when G7 leaders pledged to donate one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries.

However, Guarnizo says the G7 pledge will only go so far to address the vaccine shortage: ‘The only way to ensure that vaccine production and distribution is managed equitably around the globe is by creating new production centres in regions where they don’t currently exist.’

Guarnizo has also been advocating for Big Pharma to issue a temporary waiver on intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines to make them more widely accessible. Cuba is the only Latin American country so far to approve a home-grown vaccine – Abdala. The Butanvac vaccine, developed by the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, has been authorised for use in clinical trials. In April, Argentina became the first nation to produce local batches of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.

The pandemic has plunged Latin America into its worst recession for 120 years. In July, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated the region would grow 5.2% in 2021. It also warned that the social impact of the crisis, combined with structural problems – namely inequality, poverty, low investment and productivity – threatened the region’s long-term recovery.

In November 2020, ECLAC’s Director, Hugo Beteta, told the Co-Chair of the IBA's Poverty & Social Development Committee, Álvaro Castellanos Howell, that Covid-19 was ‘a pandemic of poverty,’ but that the crisis in Latin America offered ‘an unprecedented opportunity to solve problems and get our societies to solve problems.’

If we’ve learnt anything from the pandemic, it’s that Latin America is ripe for change. ‘From the Colombian uprisings, the Peruvian elections to the Chilean constitution changes, our region seems to be longing for change,’ says Castro, who is also Young Lawyers Initiatives Officer on the IBA’s Latin American Regional Forum. ‘Globally, the world is changing, and we need to re-educate our population to ensure part of the population is not left out.’

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