What does the Covid-19 pandemic mean for Latin America?

Actualizado: 30 de jun de 2020

Dr. Fabio de Castro, CEDLA

Latin America has recently become

the new epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the number of infections and deaths escalates. The diversity of responses observed in the region reveals tensions and innovations that are worthy of attention. Contrasting scenarios emerging from these processes make Latin America a relevant region from which to foster an understanding of this pandemic and its effects for a post-pandemic world.

Covid-19 emerged in China in December, 2019 and swept through the world as a tsunami, deepening social, economic and political tensions. Arguably, this pandemic is a symptom of a much deeper global crisis in this hyper-connected world. It has exposed major contradictions in development models, human-nature relations, and policy-making, and it poses new challenges for collective action at local, national and global scales.


The first case of Covid-19 infection in Latin America was recorded in late February. Three months later, the region reached the benchmark of one million infections and over fifty thousand deaths, becoming the pandemic’s new epicenter. Cases are bound to be underreported, so it is difficult to ascertain precise infection rates. However, official statistics indicate that Brazil contains half of all reported cases. Peru, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia follow. Limited success in social distancing measures combined with combined with unequal access and often underfunded public health care systems have led to a quick spread of infections in the region. In addition, poor housing and sanitary conditions, misinformation by some media channels and religious groups add to the factors pushing some citizens away from lockdown. Images of mass graves and bodies piled up on streets reflect the grim reality of this pandemic. At the same time, some countries have been more successful in their measures to control infections such as Cuba, Uruguay and Costa Rica.

What does Covid-19 mean for Latin America? How do citizens, policy-makers, corporations and experts respond to this new threat? And what are the implications of those responses for the future of Latin America’s societies? What is particularly unique in the region and what are the main intra-regional differences?

Will this pandemic become a turning point toward a ‘new normal’ or will elites capitalize on it to amass more wealth and political power? What lessons from the region can help us understand this pandemic more broadly? CEDLA researchers and affiliated scholars will address these and other related questions in this blog series in order to stimulate a dialogue with audiences interested in the region. 

Many of the societal trends that have unraveled in countries worldwide, such as social disruptions, political unrest, intensified digitalization of social life, unemployment and national economic decline, are also observable in Latin America. However, new challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic intersect with existing pre-pandemic issues faced by the region and generate a range of effects. Stagnant national economies, political crises and weak institutions prevent state actors from responding with appropriate policies and providing public goods such as health services and economic safety nets. Poverty, discrimination and reliance on the informal economy increase the risk of exposure to Covid-19 for disenfranchised groups. 

Brought by middle class travelers who visited Europe during their vacation, this ‘invisible enemy’ is spreading unequally among a range of vulnerable populations. In addition to the elderly and physically debilitated people, ‘risk groups’ in Latin America encompass groups intersecting across class, ethnicity, gender and race. Residents from poor neighborhoods, afro-descendants, and indigenous populations show significantly higher rates of infection and death from Covid-19. Overworked, underpaid health care workers, predominantly women, carry high burdens and risks in many countries in the region. The homeless, migrants and incarcerated populations are remarkably overlooked by the State and face limited access to health assistance. While lockdown is a sound preventive strategy, it disproportionately exacerbates income loss to informal workers, exclusion to citizens who have limited access to digital technologies, and insecurity to women facing domestic violence. 

In the context of collapsed health systems, family tragedies and grief, a number of innovative initiatives to tackle this pandemic are emerging throughout the region. These are as worthy of attention as the challenges Covid-19 poses. In the face of inaction at the national level, subnational governments and groups are stepping up their efforts to combat the pandemic. Gangs, for instance, are organizing curfews and imposing various social distancing measures in poor neighborhoods. Peasant social movements are providing food to tackle hunger among the urban poor. Urban indigenous peoples are volunteering to provide proper health assistance in indigenous territories. Local artists are developing new ways to express their art. Researchers are creating multidisciplinary teams to monitor the development and effects of this pandemic. Private companies are financially supporting local organizations in their social initiatives. What might all these experiences teach us and how transformative can they be in the long haul?

The range of aggravating conditions and innovative responses observed in Latin America demonstrates that Covid-19 is not just a public health issue. It intersects with multiple societal domains and challenges such as governance and development models, historical memories and societal values, social inequality and justice, cultural expressions and solidarity, production and consumption patterns, connectivity and human mobility, knowledge building and information sharing. The Covid-19 crisis can reshape societies in the world. In the context of high inequality, it can be an opportunity for both powerful and disempowered actors in Latin America. The former may use it to legitimize ‘business as usual’ solutions, slashing rights of the urban working class and rural populations, making budget cuts on social programs, or may use it to monitor citizens’ behavior through use of digital technologies. The latter may find fertile grounds in the increasing realization of vulnerability and risks to new pandemics to expand and strengthen post-capitalist imaginaries grounded in peasants and indigenous cosmologies such as Buen Vivir, food sovereignty and rights of nature.  

It is precisely these contrasting scenarios that makes Latin America a relevant region from which to foster our understanding of this pandemic and its effects for a post-pandemic world.

By Fabio de Castro, CEDLA

Picture by Santiago Sito, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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