COVID-19 in Latin America. Interview

Olivier Dabène and Román Perdomo (École doctorale de Sciences Po, OPALC)


Latin America was hit quite late by COVID-19. Can you explain why?

Latin America was hit late by the pandemic because it is further off passenger flows from China and because its population is younger than in Europe. Such an interval has offered the countries of the region a supplementary delay to prepare for the worst. Patient zero was diagnosed in Brazil on 26 February. In the weeks that followed, many countries applied drastic measures even though the virus had barely spread. Brazil closed its borders on 19 March, a state of emergency was declared in Ecuador on 16 March, compulsory lockdown was decided on in Salvador on 11 March and in Peru on 15 March.

What is the state of the healthcare system in the most populated country of Latin America, Brazil? Is it able to face the challenge of COVID-19?

Brazil is rather well prepared compared to the average Latin American countries, with a rate of access to healthcare of 79% of the population – only Cuba with 83% and Uruguay with 80% are better off. The country has a “Unified Health System” (Sistema Único de Saúde, SUS), a sort of universal health insurance meant to guarantee access to healthcare to 140 million Brazilians who cannot afford the private system.

However, the Brazilian healthcare system is very unequal and funding of public healthcare has dropped. Healthcare represents 3.8% of GNP, against 4.9% in Chile. Additionally, confinement and social distancing measures are difficult to enforce in precarious shantitowns (6% of the population live in 6,300 listed favelas). So, as a forecast, if 20% of the Brazilian population were infected, their treatment would cost the Brazilian state the equivalent of 98% of the total hospital costs for 2019. Consequently, the state would have to invest vastly and resort to massive mobilisation of its healthcare system to avoid a major crisis hecatomb.

Some governments – notably Brazil – seem to have denied the reality of the pandemic. Is this correct?

Experts in Brazil revealed the reality of the pandemic very early on. Only President Bolsonaro denied it, for two main reasons: his religious beliefs that push him to give no credit to science, and his will not to halt the slow economic recovery scheduled for 2020.

Other states like Mexico and Nicaragua refuse to take radical steps. In these countries indeed, a total lockdown of all workers of the informal sector would leave them without any revenue and expose them to extreme poverty.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s reactions and declarations, complaining about his co-citizens who criticise his lack of responsibility and give way to panic, have caused a scandal in the country...

Indeed, Bolsonaro considered the COVID-19 threat as laughable. He mentioned it was the propagation of a “small flu” with no consequence. This position caused conflicts with several institutions, and notably some regional governments who unilaterally declared quarantines, such as in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.

In particular, Bolsonaro decided to send a message urging the population to maintain the productive activity of the country, by unblocking R$4.8 million (€850,000) for a communication campaign called Brasil não pode parar (Brazil Can’t Stop). The federal courts immediately suspended it by forbidding the broadcasting of its communication ads.

Faced with the executive’s inaction, and even President Bolsonaro’s refusal to recognize the urgency of the situation, the Chamber of Deputies finally approved economic aid, a “coronavoucher” of R$600 that is allocated to informal families and a R$1,200 “coronavoucher” granted to single mothers. Likewise, some municipalities have taken the initiative to co-ordinate the distribution of essential goods with informal neighbourhood committees, as in the Paraisópolis favela in São Paulo. In some neighbourhoods, however, the persistence of organized crime adds to local political instability, as does the refusal of direct state intervention to assist the population. Three carioca favelas (Rio de Janeiro) are under quarantine curfew by the Comando Vermelho, one of Brazil’s largest organized crime networks. And at the beginning of April, the economic support voted in by the Chamber of deputies had still not reached Brazil's working-class neighbourhoods.

The contradictory or ambiguous responses given by the various state institutions have generated confusion and impeded effective and co-ordinated action, which is necessary to avoid health and economic disaster.

At the end of March, after the repeated falls of the São Paulo stock exchange, Brazil announced a rescue plan for the economy of R$150 billion (€26.4 billion) to be injected into the economy over three months. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, however, who is in favour of a strict fiscal policy, pointed out at the same time that Brazil had little fiscal room for manoeuvre after two years of economic recession and three years of weak growth.

What consequences can Jair Bolsonaro’s behaviour have at the political level? How can we imagine Brazil post-COVID-19?

The president is followed by part of the population, in particular among the evangelists. The consequences in terms of public health may be devastating.

At the political level, however, Bolsonaro will not necessarily pay the price for his irresponsibility. Opinion polls show that Brazilians do not approve of his political stances but do not however wish his dismissal. The distance he takes from state governors and even from his own government is strategic. When the time comes, Bolsonaro will present himself as the saviour who resisted the ineptitude of the political class. His model may well be Donald Trump...

Concerning the popular classes and civil society, forms of solidarity and self-organization have emerged spontaneously to face the pandemic, but also to protest against Bolsonaro, who is booed at every evening at 8pm by some citizens at their window or balcony. In working-class neighbourhoods, local NGOs distribute basic necessities and try to teach the people how to keep safe from the virus. Help among neighbours has also emerged, in particular through Whatsapp groups. Favela inhabitants are among the most organized and united members of the Brazilian society. Even if such solidarity risks being insufficient to prevent a health and economic disaster, it gives an idea of possible reconfigurations and sociabilities in the post-COVID-19 Brazilian political arena.

Interview with Olivier Dabène & Roman Perdomo by Corinne Deloy, 21 April 2020.

Access the other articles published on COVID-19 on the CERI website, in French and in English

Access the full resources page dedicated to the issue here.


Le Covid-19 en Amérique latine (Recueil de sources primaires et secondaires) , Roman Perdomo and Sebastián Urioste, Observatoire politique de l'Amérique latine et des Caraïbes (OPALC).

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