A quickly mounting death toll, hospitals on the verge of collapse, industrial-scale burials in cardboard coffins, relatives unable to bid farewell to their loved ones… Descriptions like these, horrifying though they may be, will have no immediate resonance for the average Brit. In our minds, such images are reserved for TV coverage of war or catastrophic natural disaster. For Brazilians in São Paulo and Manaus, however, this has suddenly become a tragic and sobering reality.

Brazil, the largest country in South America, is rapidly emerging as the new global hotspot for the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing, only the United States is reporting more daily fatalities, and the total number of cases has soared to more than 190,000. Estimates suggest that the official number of deaths, which currently stands at just over 13,000, merely constitutes the tip of the iceberg, with data reviewed by Reuters suggesting that the death toll of the worst-hit area in the state of Amazonas could be three times the registered figure. They also allude to significant numbers of fatalities attributed to “pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome and other respiratory failures” which are most likely related to COVID-19, raising fears that the true extent of the crisis is worse than meets the eye. Arthur Virgílio, the mayor of Amazonian city Manaus, has sent letters and video messages to 21 world leaders pleading for urgent assistance as its coffin supply runs short and its vulnerable health service becomes overwhelmed. “We aren’t in a state of emergency – we’re well beyond that. We are in a state of utter disaster,” he told Tom Phillips, Latin America correspondent for the Guardian.

Meanwhile, in the capital Brasilia, President Jair Bolsonaro announced his plans to invite thirty friends to his palace for a barbeque. “We will chat, perhaps play a little soccer,” he chimed to journalists, later joking that he may extend the invitation to thousands of his political supporters and members of the press. The retired military officer, a political outsider whose far-right policies saw him storm to victory in the 2018 general election, has incited worldwide outrage in the face of his response to the pandemic. Since dismissing the virus in a national public address as nothing more than a gripezinha (“a little flu”), his flagrant disregard of lockdown measures and underplaying of the crisis has only worsened along with the death toll.

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“So what? What do you want me to do?” Many would struggle to distinguish Bolsonaro’s response to growing fatalities with that of a petulant teenager talking back to their parents. Aiming to bolster his chances of re-election, he presents himself as the champion for Brazil’s impoverished workers, insisting that the chokehold placed on the economy by social-distancing measures is more damaging than the virus itself. Despite eleven members of his political delegation testing positive for the virus after a trip to the US and reports that he himself may have fallen ill, he was pictured coughing and spluttering as he addressed crowds on the streets of the capital in March, shaking hands and taking selfies with protestors demanding the closure of Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court. One Brazilian newspaper calculated that Bolsonaro had direct contact with 272 different people and handled 128 mobile phones given to him by members of the public during the event. It is little wonder, then, that The Lancet medical journal has branded him “perhaps the biggest threat” to Brazil’s ability to combat the spread of the virus.

Opposition to the president has not just come from abroad, however. Outcry from prominent figures across the Brazilian political spectrum has become deafening as a crisis of health is quickly becoming a crisis of faith in his leadership. Rodrigo Maia, president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, described the president’s behaviour as “an attack on public health”, and his decision to fire his health minister Luis Henrique Mandetta for supporting social-distancing sparked widespread condemnation from all sides. The governors of Brazil’s 27 states have openly rebelled against him, implementing their own quarantine measures to compensate for the lack of federal response. The latest blow to Bolsonaro came on April 24th, when justice minister Sérgio Moro resigned in response to his sacking of the head of federal police, accusing the president of “political interference” on television and demanding an urgent investigation into his conduct. Discontent is rising as angry citizens bang furiously on pots and pans, with chants of Fora Bolsonaro! (“Bolsonaro out!”) filling the streets of cities across the nation. As calls for his impeachment begin to grow louder and the impact of the virus tightens its grip, Brazil finds itself hurtling headlong towards disaster.

Cross the border into any of Brazil’s ten neighbouring countries and the pandemic is presenting a similar threat to its citizens. A continent known for its vast political, economic and cultural divisions, the extent of variation in government response in Latin America to COVID-19 has been no different. #Quédatteencasa (“#stayathome”) illuminates motorway signs in Argentina, one of the multiple countries following European precedent in imposing a strict lockdown on its citizens early in the outbreak. Peru’s reaction is also a far cry from that seen in Brazil, with its government imposing a nightly curfew and controversially limiting movement by gender. Other countries, such as Chile, have turned to more flexible strategies, only implementing lockdowns in viral hotspots and temporarily nationalising their privatised health service to flatten the curve of infection. According to the Pan American Health Organisation, the continent is currently approaching 300,000 cases and is expected to enter the peak of the pandemic in May, six weeks behind Europe.

And yet, despite the growing number of infections, Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra announced plans to begin reopening the economy. Colombia’s leader Iván Duque has already given the green light to the construction and manufacturing sectors, as well as setting out stages for a controlled return to normality over the coming weeks. The idea of relaxing lockdown measures before receiving clear evidence that it was safe to do so was scarcely entertained by any European government, all of whom kept the overwhelming majority of their citizens indoors until well beyond the peak. Developed countries such as Italy, Spain and France saw the decision to prioritise lives over livelihoods as an obvious one, introducing generous rescue spending packages to keep their economies afloat. Whilst the decision to grind their countries to a halt will undoubtedly pose significant financial challenges for many years to come, the relative strength of their economies means that the strict measures that are needed to control the spread of the virus can be sustained for as long as is deemed necessary.

Across the Atlantic in the comparatively underdeveloped nations of Latin America, the matter is not so black and white. Despite the shocking disregard for life demonstrated by the nonchalant Bolsonaro, many will concede that his concern for his nation’s economy is in no respect unfounded. On a continent where over half of all workers are informal, living hand to mouth and reliant on daily cash takings for survival, long-term lockdowns are not merely a trying inconvenience, but rather a complete impossibility. For millions of poorer citizens, the luxury of being able to socially distance is nothing more than a pipe dream, with the threat of death by starvation ultimately looming larger than that of the virus. Although generous aid packages have been pledged by governments across the continent, the sheer scale of the region’s informal, often unregistered workforce has meant that emergency payments are often failing to reach those who need them most. In the poorest neighbourhoods of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, residents have resorted to tying red rags to their windows to signal an urgent need for food, whilst tensions are boiling over on the streets of major cities such as Lima.

For the many millions of Latin Americans living in sprawling, overcrowded urban settlements such as the favelas in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, COVID-19 is a ticking time bomb set to explode at any moment. In these densely populated, heavily impoverished areas, where residents lack access to basic sanitation facilities and are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems, the spread of the virus has the potential to accelerate at a dizzying pace and lay waste to entire communities. As the first case clusters begin to show themselves on the urban fringes of the continent’s largest cities, there are fears that scenes in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil – where the hospital and mortuary systems have collapsed and infectious corpses are lying in the streets – may soon become a widespread reality across the continent. Given that the Inter-American Development Bank believes generalised lockdowns in Latin America cannot be sustained for more than two months, many of its political leaders find themselves faced with a catch-22: keep citizens under quarantine and risk potential economic collapse or move to restart the economy and risk devastating already unstable healthcare services. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic struck the continent at a very bad time. Even before the virus pushed the region into economic freefall, Latin America’s economy was growing at an annual average rate of less than 1% per year, making it the slowest growing region in the global south. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts an economic contraction of 5.2% this year, warning that the continent looks set to plunge into a recession deeper than that seen during the financial crisis of 2009. With prospects of economic recovery weakened by rising public debt, the impact of the oil price crash and falling commodity prices, the number of people in poverty is set to rise from 185 million to 220 million this year alone. In a region marred by structural vulnerabilities that exacerbate severe economic inequality, the head of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean worries that COVID-19 will set the continent back more than a decade in its fight to overcome these obstacles. There are growing concerns that the dramatic scenes of social unrest in 2019, fuelled by anger at endemic inequality and stagnating growth, may soon become the new normal once more. For most nations on the continent, the immediate future looks to be one marred by both social and economic crisis.  

For some experts, however, the pandemic need not be the final nail in the coffin of Latin America’s economic prospects. Whilst the forecast for 2020 is undoubtedly bleak, many are looking to the possibility of significant rebound in 2021. The World Bank estimates growth on the continent to register at 2.6%, with the IMF forecasting an even more optimistic 3.4%. In particular, Peru, Chile and Colombia are all estimated to be in a stronger economic position by the end of next year than they are now. Although the short-term response of these nations lies very much in the spotlight, the continent’s journey to recovery from this crisis will ultimately be a marathon and not a sprint. Anna Grugel Smith from openDemocracy sees this pandemic as an opportunity to address some of the widespread structural failures that have given rise to unequal growth in the region, suggesting that the route out of this crisis should seek to heal the damage done whilst also “mov[ing] the region away from the economic ‘normal’ towards inclusive development.”

The worst of the crisis is yet to come, however, and the true extent of the pandemic’s impact on Latin America will remain unclear for quite some time. Regardless of how the situation unfolds in the months and years ahead, there is little doubt that this deeply divided and structurally vulnerable continent will shoulder an overwhelming part of the global burden. With suggestions that Latin America faces the prospect of another ‘lost decade’ of progress akin to that caused by the 1980s debt crisis, or perhaps even a full-scale humanitarian crisis, eyes across the globe will be turning to its political leaders and the steps they decide to take next. Will those who pursue tough lockdowns or those who prioritise the economy ultimately win the day? If global precedent is anything to go by, president Bolsonaro may come to regret his barbecues and jet-ski outings much more deeply than he anticipates.

Image credit: Ellie Wilkins