Latin America — the next coronavirus hotspot?

The past few years have been difficult for Latin America, with stagnant economic growth, rising citizen dissatisfaction and ineffective governance. In more recent days, as the threat of COVID-19 infections move around the globe, there is growing alarm that Latin America’s existing troubles could combine to produce an untenable health and political catastrophe in the region. With an estimated 55 percent of Latin America’s population working in the informal sector, the economic and social security consequences could also be dire.

Ultimately — much like elsewhere around the world — Latin America’s ability to mitigate this pandemic will come down to the quality of its leadership, the preparedness and effectiveness of its healthcare system and the stability of its population, all of which are variable throughout the region. But there are six countries that are of particular concern at the moment. Pressure and assistance from the international community might soon be warranted.

At the top of the list of worrisome countries is Venezuela, whose embattled President Nicolas Maduro continues to lead the once prosperous and oil-rich country into an economic free fall with its hyperinflation rate hovering at 10 million percent. As a result of Maduro’s failed socialist policies (and those of Hugo Chavez before him), Venezuela’s healthcare system is in a dire state of disrepair with hospitals lacking basic supplies and medicines, and with unreliable access to clean water, the maintenance of basic sanitation and electrical shortages plaguing the country. These conditions have already led to a worrisome rise in preventable diseases — maternal mortality and H.I.V, to name two. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that Venezuela’s healthcare system won’t absolutely collapse under COVID-19 pressures and might prove to be the straw that breaks the state’s back. Until recently, those in most desperate need have migrated abroad, the majority to neighboring Colombia, but with new border closures due to the pandemic, those pressures will remain a Venezuelan problem. Maduro has ordered a national quarantine, but sadly such actions will not be sufficient given the country’s many challenges. Perhaps all of this might finally lead to Maduro’s downfall, which would be the only positive outcome of an otherwise devastating situation. 

The next two countries of concern are Mexico and Brazil, which boast the strongest economies in the region. They are also home to Latin America’s largest and most dense populations, together totaling close to 350 million. While their healthcare systems are more robust than neighboring Venezuela, these countries are experiencing a failure of leadership, as both presidents downplay the severity of the health threat and thereby put their countries and the wider region at serious risk.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopéz-Obrador has dismissed COVID-19 concerns as “hysteria” sparked by the media and his political opponents and is advocating a “live your life as normal” approach — encouraging hugging, shopping, attending political rallies, and the like. Similarly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called the pandemic “media hysteria,” despite the fact that several of his top aides (including some who recently traveled to President Donald Trump’s property Mar a Lago) have tested positive for the virus. Bolsonaro has also denounced the governors of Brazil’s two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, for their move to lock down with school closures and strict social distancing guidelines. And just days ago, Bolsonaro threatened to dismiss his health minister if he publicly criticized him. 

In response, Brazilians are taking to the streets to protest their president’s cavalier approach and seem to be turning to their local and regional authorities for guidance. They are displaying a loss of confidence in Bolsonaro’s ability to lead effectively. If Lopéz-Obrador does not shift his own rhetoric very soon, he risks a similar response in Mexico. Though these leaders sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum —with Bolsonaro on the far-right and Lopéz-Obrador on the left — both are exposing themselves to potential political fallout for the populist movements they represent, and a health disaster that experts see coming. 

The final cohort includes the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, also known as the Northern Triangle. They are among the poorest in the region, with roughly 60 percent of Guatemala and Honduras living in poverty and accounting for the bulk of asylum seekers at the U.S. border. While their leaders appear to be taking appropriate measures by enacting school and border closures and encouraging social distancing, these countries are of concern because they are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. 

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has likely led the swiftest regional response to the outbreak, blocking entry to foreigners and ordering a month-long quarantine to El Salvadorans traveling home from abroad. Nevertheless, like neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador’s vulnerability stems from its high homicide rates, drug-trafficking-related gang violence, rampant corruption, weak rule of law, and low levels of institutional confidence. Together these factors create weak and, in some ways, defenseless societies that are not prepared to manage the deadly threat posed by this pandemic and the results could be a devastating human toll. While the U.S. border remains closed to asylum seekers, the virus also threatens to add to existing pressures for exit from the Northern Triangle. Between 2007–2015, immigration to the United States from these countries increased by 25 percent, and an untenable health epidemic may fuel those numbers to rise once the border reopens.

As concern continues to mount that Latin America may become the next COVID-19 hotspot, the world would be wise to take notice and to assist where it can. In the immediate term, increased international pressure on Bolsonaro and Lopéz-Obrador can compel them to shift their rhetoric and their national responses. In the more medium term—and once the United States and the wider international community weathers the worst of their own COVID-19 threats—they should be prepared to assist their neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. President Trump should reconsider recommitting the U.S. aid to Central America that was scaled back just last year. COVID-19 poses not just a Latin American health threat, but also has the potential to initiate significant shifts in the political dynamics of the region and to add to future immigrant influxes at the U.S. and other neighboring borders unless pressure and humanitarian support is offered.

Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, PhD, is an assistant professor and research director for Public and Policy Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Raul O. Chao, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

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