A terse report filed from São Paulo, Brazil, appeared in the 17 March 1919 edition of the New York Times. It read: “Influenza again has appeared here in epidemic form. The Government is taking steps to prevent the spread of the disease.” Just over one hundred years later, faced with another pandemic, the Brazilian government has taken a different approach. President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right extremist elected in 2018, has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus, urging citizens to suck it up and get back to work so that the economy can once again get moving.
The president has frequently appeared in public places without a mask, stopping to greet supporters, creating potential super-spreader events as a matter of course. Bolsonaro’s recklessness has had terrible consequences: Latin America’s largest nation has been ravaged by the pandemic, with more than 13m cases.
But Brazil is not alone. The World Bank has identified Latin America as the region that has been hardest hit by the pandemic. The Financial Times’ register of excess deaths puts Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Mexico at the top. The Lancet has identified it as having “some of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world”. A University of Washington Covid-19 projection model forecast deaths in the region could surpass one million by 25 June.
Governments of different ideological hues have been badly affected. Under the conservative businessman Sebastian Piñera, Chile is seeing an alarming increase in cases despite running one of the most efficient vaccination campaigns in the world. Under the moderate leftist Alberto Fernández, Argentina has struggled to make progress against the virus, even as it adopted an aggressive lockdown and other prescribed containment measures. Indeed, the country’s misfortune is such that Fernández received his second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in February but nevertheless tested positive for the virus a second time this month.
This is not easily explainable. One factor to consider, however, is the lack of any regional coordination of the kind that existed during the years of the so-called “pink tide”. Beginning in the late 1990s, decidedly leftwing, yet non-communist governments popped up across Latin America. Taking advantage of this regional ideological alignment, 12 countries from across Latin America, under the leadership of Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, created the Union of South American Nations (Unasur). The aim of this body was to foster regional integration and policy coordination. The first two councils created under the auspices of UNASUR related to the areas of defence and healthcare.
This South American Council of Health was immediately put to the test by the 2009 swine flu pandemic. When the first cases of the new H1N1 flu were detected in Argentina and Chile (it was later ascertained that the flu emerged in Mexico), other countries were quickly alerted and a full-scale operation was set up in airports and border checkpoints to stop the spread of the disease. A series of measures were put in place to make diagnostic and therapeutic resources available to every country in the region and a common strategy was developed to obtain the specific flu vaccine as soon as it became available.
The spirit of regional coordination in Latin America is gone; the website of the South American Council of Health seems all but abandoned. To the extent that there has been any supranational coordination, it has been carried out by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is part of the United Nations system. PAHO has helped countries plan vaccination campaigns and advised on the processes of pooled procurement and distribution. But it is ultimately limited in its reach. It can strongly advise social distancing and mask mandates, for example, but it cannot impose such measures.
When a new, more transmissible variant of the virus was detected in Brazil in March, the World Health Organization, of which PAHO is a part, expressed concern that neighbouring countries could be affected unless Brazil took aggressive health measures. It didn’t. Soon, PAHO noted rising infections in Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. The picture that emerges is sisyphean, with hard-fought progress quickly undermined or undone by a crafty virus and inconsistent policy.
The pandemic has proved especially damaging in Latin America in large part because there is no agreement about what it is or who is to blame. The fact that different approaches across the region have not defeated the virus compounds the problem, giving talking points to those inclined to deny the severity of the pandemic to defer further action. For much of last year, some could look at Latin America and plausibly wonder why Argentina, which introduced long and draconian lockdowns, had some of the highest per capita death rates. They could ask, if lockdowns are an inadvisable excess, why Brazil’s public health system is on the brink of collapse.
Amid this dispiriting regional anomie, it is no surprise that former president Lula, back in the fray after regaining his political rights last month, is calling for greater coordination. “The United Nations should have already called for an extraordinary general assembly, a virtual assembly, to discuss Covid 19,” he said in a recent interview, adding that, “rulers are not acting like rulers… Everyone is thinking of themselves.” One imagines the relative closeness of “pink tide” governments a decade and a half ago would have enabled more effective coordination across borders, which, in turn, might have saved lives by pooling resources and technical knowhow. Today, however, Latin America is polarised and rudderless. Countries have gone it alone, with tragic results.