In a week which saw Brazil set a new record for daily infections of Covid-19, the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, stepped up his campaign to downplay the virus by removing the face mask of one child before telling another to take off hers during a presidential event last Thursday.
The video of the two incidents angered many Brazilian but surprised few. Bolsonaro’s denialist approach to combating the pandemic has not wavered since its outbreak, even now as a third wave has pushed the country’s death toll past the half-million mark.
This presidential campaign against face masks, social distancing and vaccinations means that, at their current rates of deaths, Brazil is on course to overhaul the United States as the country to suffer most fatalities from Covid-19 by the end of the summer.
It has also made it the poster child for what has gone wrong with Latin America’s pandemic response. The region is home to less than 10 per cent of the world’s population but has accounted for almost a third of all deaths from the virus. This is despite wildly varying approaches, from the denialism of Bolsonaro to some of the most rigid lockdowns anywhere in Peru and Bolivia and a widely praised vaccine rollout in Chile.
“Latin America is the region that is still the most worrying in the world because there is a lack of control over the circulation of the virus here,” says Dr Antonio Flores, an infectious disease specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières.
This failure at containment is set to continue because of the delay in reaching significant coverage from vaccines, whether due to the obstructionist approach to vaccinations by Bolsonaro in Brazil, or problems with the global Covax initiative to supply vaccines to poorer nations on which countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are reliant.
Even Chile has seen its successful early vaccination of a large proportion of its population undermined by a rushed reopening that experts say allowed for a new surge in infections.
But even as the region still struggles to get the virus under control, the consequences of the pandemic’s impact are increasingly being felt in societies that before the new coronavirus was detected were already aflame with social and political tensions.
There were violent street protests from Haiti to Chile as well as a string of constitutional crises in 2019. Since then, having suffered a decade of stagnation that helped fuel this unrest, Latin America is the region to suffer the biggest hit to output as a result of the pandemic’s economic disruption, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
“Without the pandemic the unrest of 2019 would likely have only have gotten worse and spread further throughout the region in 2020,” says Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, a regional research group based in Chile. “The pandemic put a very strong break on the protests but none of the problems behind the unrest were solved. In fact it only deepened them and now even without the virus being under control people are giving up on quarantine.”
Demonstrators clash with riot police in Bogota. Photograph: Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images
The most obvious sign that the pause in unrest provoked by the pandemic is over comes from Colombia. A tax reform proposed in April by President Iván Duque sparked mass demonstrations that exposed the depths of despair at the spike in unemployment and poverty caused by the pandemic.
Unlike the largely peaceful demonstrations in the country in 2019, this latest round turned violent, with dozens of protesters killed and hundreds arrested. The unrest shows no signs of abating even after Duque withdrew his new tax plan.
Meanwhile Chile, which saw some of the most violent protests in 2019, has seen the pandemic accelerate disenchantment with its traditional political system. Independents were left with the balance of power in the convention elected in May to draw up a new constitution for the country.
That surprise result has injected huge uncertainty into the presidential race due in November. The surprise early front-runner is Daniel Jadue, the communist mayor of a district of the capital Santiago.
Across the border in Peru similar discontent with traditional politicians allowed the candidate from a fringe Marxist party come from nowhere to win its presidential election earlier this month to the shock of the country’s elite, which are still trying to prevent certification of his victory.
Pedro Castillo’s message of “no more poor people in a rich country” resonated among the population worst hit by the pandemic in the world, which has seen Peru record the highest death rate anywhere from Covid-19 despite stringent lockdowns that crushed much of the economy, causing one of the worst spikes in hunger now being seen across the region.
Some analysts have held out the hope that the rapid economic reactivation in other parts of the world will help boost Latin American economies by driving up prices for its commodity exports such as oil, iron ore and soy beans. But others warn this alone will not be enough to ease the current tensions.
“The question is how the wealth from any economic reactivation will be distributed within the region. I think the pressure to redistribute within countries is going to be enormous and very inelastic, meaning people will not be willing to wait. They have suffered and will demand their share now and that will bring a lot of social unrest,” predicts Latinobarómetro’s Lagos, who says the ground is now fertile for the region’s new breed of populists to take advantage of the discontent.
But if rising global demand for its commodities is not enough to calm the region’s tensions, there is one area where outsiders could make a difference in helping Latin America emerge from the current crisis, say health experts.
“We need a planned global exit from the pandemic that corrects the shamefully bad distribution of vaccines,” says Flores of Médecins Sans Frontières. “It is mutual interest because if one region of the world is vaccinated and another isn’t the virus will continue to circulate and eventually circulate across the whole world.”