Latin America is by far the area of the world that has been worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of 2020 the region counted more than fifteen million cases, 20% of the world’s total.
At that point half a million people had died as a consequence of the pandemic, almost a third of all the deaths worldwide.
All that in countries that still have not reached the rates of demographic ageing of Europe or of some Asian countries, like Japan, and some of them with populations almost as young as those of Africa, a continent which so far is faring better than others in the pandemic due to this age-related factor, among other reasons. If in Africa a possible herd immunity, developed through the population’s exposure to previous coronaviruses – less virulent than Covid-19 – helps to understand the lower prevalence rate, in Latin America there are other characteristics that explain the disaster.
To start with, the widespread informality of a labour market which is an unequal as the majority of Latin American societies.
Then there is an overcrowding of housing and transport systems that many of the region’s cities share with African ones.
Lastly, political structures that are in a state of decomposition and which in many cases are run by politicians detached from the ethnic, racial and social reality that they manage, something which does not happen in Africa.
Something of this was recognised by the health minister- who later resigned – for Chile, where initial European-style measures quickly ran into problems, less with the obvious reality of the country than with the foolish first world hunger for success of a ruling class that is as heterogenous in its party affiliations as it is homogenous in its background and in its inability to understand a reality that it has presided over for a very long time.
So that’s the bad bit.
The good thing is that the Latin American population has demonstrated commendable resilience, solidarity and social discipline throughout the whole pandemic.
It is true that there have been people who have broken the lockdown rules and other measures imposed by the different governments.
However, it is also true that in most cases it has been for reasons of subsistence and that the most striking breaches have been no more antisocial than those seen in other latitudes.
On the other hand, and unlike what happened in the Netherlands and the USA, for example, the disturbances seen in recent months in countries like Guatemala, Chile, Peru and Argentina were not directly related to the pandemic.
That civil unrest was, in the case of the first three, a response to political divisions that were evident long before the pandemic and in Buenos Aires to extraordinary events, such as the unexpected death and tumultuous funeral rites of Diego Armando Maradona.
It would be a mistake, however, if Latin American politicians did not include in their narratives proposals to address the things that have been laid bare by the pandemic: inequality, corruption, inefficiency, insufficient institutional frameworks and the absence of regional coordination to tackle a common challenge.
This last point is disheartening after two centuries of efforts to achieve unity through a variety of institutions from the Andean Pact to Mercosur, from ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) to CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and the Parlatino (Latin American parliament).
This lack of joint action explains the disparate strategies adopted to tackle the pandemic from Uruguay’s highly successful one to the reckless denial of Brazil, from the inefficient Mexican paternalism to the strategy of El Salvador.
In this latter country President Bukele’s heterodoxy enabled him to react rapidly ordering a quarantine accompanied by a decree obliging business not to cut off water or electricity supplies to any customers who could not pay. The lack of regional coordination has also hindered the joint purchase of vaccines and therefore the ability to negotiate with more strength. There are countries that prefer to use those from the Pfizer and AstraZeneca laboratories and others, like Argentina, who use the Russian Sputnik. Several have also bought some doses of the Chinese Sinovac and CanSino vaccines.
The opportunity to correct all this is the super electoral cycle which has just been set in motion in Ecuador and which between now and 2024 will see the leadership renewed in all the countries of the region except Bolivia, where it already happened in 2020.
That high-altitude election showed that the population does not necessarily want more State but it does want a better State. It wants a better state in the sense that the national institutions should be robust enough to deal with not a pandemic, though that too, but all the shameful things that Covid-19 has laid bare and that pre-date the coronavirus crisis.
They are acting with the responsibility the pandemic demands and which has been missing before and during the said pandemic from not a few political leaders in a region where the ravages of Covid-19 are symptoms but not causes.
It is possible that when the fright has passed that patience will not be the same.