Introduction: Latin American Responses to COVID-19

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In some ways, the Latin American experiences of COVID-19 look much like those seen throughout the world. There are considerable difficulties in containing the spread of the disease, particularly in dense urban areas.  The economic impact, as businesses close down and workers are laid off, is devastating.  There are challenges in offering and maintaining public services, such as transportation, in a manner that does not increase the risks of spreading the disease. But there are also difficulties, and responses, that are specific to various countries and populations within Latin America.

To begin with, throughout Latin America, we have seen many situations where the government has responded to the pandemic by invoking a state of emergency.  That has enabled these governments to sidestep existing structures of accountability. Once a state of emergency is invoked, the rights of citizens are severely constricted, often permitting the government to pursue its own agenda in all domains, not only health care.  In some cases, states have used this opportunity to sell off national assets; these kinds of transactions ordinarily require an approval process, but in a state of emergency, the provisions for oversight and approval are suspended.

In various countries in Latin America, officials in charge of responding to the pandemic have used this situation as an opportunity for self-enrichment.  As Raúl Salgado discusses in his essay, Ecuador has had widespread corruption for years, and this reality has profoundly shaped its response to the pandemic. Certainly, the corruption has compromised the government’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.  But at the same time, the pandemic has deepened and expanded the corruption of the state, even as the government purports to be tackling this very problem.

In the case of Peru, the impact of the pandemic and the resulting government response, have occurred within the broader context of pre-existing urban/rural tensions. Peru is rich in minerals and metals, and the countryside is dominated by large mining enterprises. These mining enterprises have, for many years now, brought about considerable contamination of the water and soil while bringing little income, through employment or other means, to the communities in which they are located. As a result, over the past few decades there has been a large-scale migration from rural to urban areas, as the indigenous and other rural inhabitants sought work or markets for their products. With the onset of the pandemic, and the consequent loss of work in the cities, the migration has reversed direction; and those returning to their rural communities brought the infection with them. While the rural communities have always had a dearth of health care resources, in the face of the pandemic, the state has virtually abandoned these communities altogether. The essay by Doreen Montag and Marco Barboza discusses how indigenous and other rural communities have responded, in part by turning to traditional medicines and social support networks.

For Cuba, the economy and state services are profoundly shaped by the presence of U.S. sanctions. While Cuba’s health care system is highly developed—within Latin America, Cuba is considered a powerhouse in medical research, and hundreds of Cuban doctors work abroad, providing medical services in the Global South—the sanctions affect Cuba’s trade and international relations at every turn. The U.S. sanctions not only prohibit U.S. nationals from trading with Cuba, but because of their “extraterritorial” effect, the sanctions also interfere in Cuba’s trade with companies in Europe and elsewhere, and compromise Cuba’s international access to energy, shipping, and financial services. Cuba has had considerable success in containing the spread of COVID-19; there are remarkably few cases, and low mortality rates relative to the population. But as Raúl Rodríguez shows, even with Cuba’s sophisticated universal health care, the sanctions undermine the country’s ability to procure medical resources, provide treatment, and meet nutritional needs.

In the Amazon, the national governments have often failed to provide adequate funds or resources to meet the needs of indigenous communities. Where there are local indigenous governments, there has been little funding for basic services, including health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on indigenous populations. Even for indigenous communities that are quite isolated, there has been a high incidence of infection, as a result of contact with scientists, tourists, and young people returning from travel to urban areas.

Some indigenous groups have always relied heavily on traditional medicines, and in the face of the high mortality rates in the hospitals, they have abandoned any attempt to use hospitals or healthcare centers employing Western medicine to treat COVID-19 infections. As Ivette Vallejo and Marisol Rodríguez show, the response of some indigenous communities in the Amazon has very much been shaped by women. In these tribes, indigenous women not only look after the family and the home but also often are responsible for working outside the home, for example, selling their artisanal products in cities. As a result, women are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. At the same time, women work together in social networks to share knowledge and formulate treatments using traditional medicines, and to care for those who are ill. However, in the Amazon, some indigenous tribes are already very small, with a population of fewer than a thousand members.  As the infection rate climbs—sometimes reaching 20 percent—there is a real question of whether entire indigenous groups may be extinguished by the disease.

This collection sheds light on the tragic consequences of COVID-19 in Latin America, in both their universality and their particularity.  It also gives us insight into the resourcefulness and solidarity that have characterized some of the Latin American responses to the pandemic.

—Joy Gordon and Raul Salgado Espinoza

Joy Gordon teaches in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University-Chicago, where she holds the Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Chair in Social Ethics.

Raúl Salgado Espinoza is professor of International Relations at the Department of International Studies and Communication of FLACSO Ecuador. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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