By Aparaajita Pandey
As Covid-19 tightens its grips around the world, Latin America and the Caribbean have not remained untouched. The global pandemic has mutated and multiplied in unprecedented fashions and as humanity endeavours to find a cure, and to slow down its destructive gallop, Latin America and the Caribbean akin to the rest of the world stand at the cusp of a bigger medical tragedy than the one they are already going through.
On 26 February 2020, Brazil reported its first case and soon after Mexico reported one too. Soon there were cases reported all over the Latin American continent. While Brazil has reported the most number of cases yet, all of Latin America maintains that the cases of the virus reported are 'imported' in nature, which means that those infected are the ones who travelled abroad and contracted the infection during their travels. While the numbers of the Covid- 19 victims in the region are relatively low in comparison to the rest of the world, it is suspected by health officials that these numbers are low due to a lack of testing among the people. Most health officials from the region and around the world believe that the real number of affected patients is much higher in reality.
Latin America and the Caribbean presently stand at a precipice of what could turn into an almost unmanageable medical disaster for the region. While Covid-19 is the most recent of the virus-based diseases to affect the region, it most certainly isn't the only one. The region already suffers from its fair share of epidemics including measles, dengue, and other arboviruses. This is not to say that other countries around the world are facing the Coronavirus in singularity and have no other diseases, but one must keep in mind that the prevalence of arboviruses in the region is more pronounced than most regions around the globe. A simple statistical fact that in 2019, the Latin American continent registered 1,538 deaths due to dengue puts into context the prevalence of the disease which in other regions around the world leads to death in less than one per cent of the cases reported in totality.
The Latin American medical troubles don't end with arboviruses. There is also a systemic problem of low expenditure of healthcare. While in OECD countries spend 3,973 USD per capita per annum on health care which amounts to an average of 6.6 per cent of their GDP and the West Asia-North Africa region spends 1,420 USD per capita, averaging to about 3.7 per cent of their annual GDP on health care, Latin America and the Caribbean tend to spend an average of 949 USD per capita annually on the health care of their people (Statistics for America Quarterly).
While the expenditure of health care and healthcare systems in Latin America is about woefully inadequate to combat the existing conditions in the region, the addition of Covid -19 is going to burden the medical system of the point of breaking. There is also the problem of rampant violent crime in the region, with the highest rates of homicide anywhere in the world; hospitals around Latin America already faces a herculean challenge keeping up with medical emergencies. In all probability, any further deterioration in the Covid-19 conditions would overwhelm the health care system of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The countries of the region also understand this and most have taken appropriate steps. Countries like Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Guatemala, and El Salvador have closed their borders. Most countries have also restricted movements, advising social distancing and self- quarantines, however, the implementation of these measures is spotty at best. An interesting visual came out of Brazil a few days ago where a social media post by a favela resident in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro claimed that a virtual lockdown was enforced in the locality to combat the spread of Corona by the local warlord. While the accuracy of such a social media post is questionable, it does bolster the narrative that social distancing and self-isolation is not being implemented in the most earnest sense in Brazil. Chile that had recently closed its borders is also finding it difficult to implement its ban on a gathering larger than 500 people as anti-government protests continue in Chile. While Colombia closed its borders, it has meant more troubles for the Venezuelan refugees, who were already facing acute medical neglect and shortages of essential medicine and are now further suffering under the lockdowns implemented by the government.
Mexico has had a completely different approach, and had until recently not imposed any kind of restrictions on movement and gathering of people. However, now under international pressure, there is a ban on gatherings of more than 1000 people. Nevertheless, as visuals of the Mexican President hugging and kissing his supporters at a recent event surfaced, he was accused of 'not taking the virus seriously'.
Latin America and the Caribbean also recognize that while the situation is primarily a pandemic, there will also be wide-spread economic ramifications. While countries like Guatemala have already announced a relaxation on rents and water and electricity bills, we are yet to see a comprehensive economic package to deal with the pandemic in most countries.
Cuba has continued with its very special brand of medical diplomacy. Cuba has been sending teams of doctors all over the world, including first world developed nations like Italy. Cuba has also promised doctors to Brazil, even though Bolsonaro upon assuming power had vowed to send back all Cuban doctors. The country has a history of conducting diplomacy through doctors and medical professionals and while it started with the aim of spreading the 'revolution', it had evolved into a convenient quid pro quo in most situations. However, it is unclear at this point of time as to what Cuba stands to gain from this noble effort other than universal goodwill.
Covid-19 has brought the planet to a standstill, and there is a quiet consensus among nations and people that it would forever change the world as we know it moving forward. Latin America and the Caribbean also have to assess what would be their 'new normal'.
(The author is Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Asst. Professor at Amity University, NOIDA. Views expressed are personal.)