Latin America braces for coronavirus crisis – developing countries need solidarity not sanctions

Cumulative confirmed cases of coronavirus 26 March (map: John Hopkins University)

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in a number of countries in Latin America – posing a threat to the lives of millions of people across the continent. In this life and death situation the people of Latin America need solidarity and assistance to deal with a crisis that has overwhelmed the healthcare systems of some the world’s richest and most advanced economies in the world.

The response of governments in Latin America has so far varied considerably. Countries with a socialist oriented leadership have adopted strict preventative measures. On the other hand the ultra-right wing President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is pursuing the opposite approach, joining Donald Trump in totally downplaying the crisis and failing to take action, which risks catastrophe and mass deaths in a country of 210 million people.

It has been shown in other countries what can be achieved when the priority is given to saving lives and not minimising economic loss – which in reality means profits. China has shown in practice that a huge Covid-19 outbreak can be defeated in six weeks if decisive action is taken. On the 5 February new daily cases of coronavirus in China peaked at 3,887 and by 19 March this number had fallen to zero following a massive mobilisation of the whole of China’s government and society to crush the disease – not ‘flattening the curve’ but smashing the virus into the ground. This is what every country in Latin America needs to achieve.

Capitalist countries in the West however are not only failing to control the spread of the coronavirus and protect their own populations from the disease but also in the case of the US are disgracefully attempting to use this crisis to ramp up pressure on regimes it is trying to overthrow. By increasing sanctions on Venezuela at this critical time, the US administration reveals its barbaric and criminal character by aiming to add to the mounting number of unnecessary deaths and exacerbating human suffering.

In contrast, the life and death expertise that China has acquired in fighting the virus is now being offered to 82 countries across the world. At the same time from within Latin America itself Cuba has also responded to this international crisis by sending medical brigades to afflicted countries – including to Europe’s worst affected country, Italy, in an immense gesture of humanitarianism from a small developing country to one of the world’s richest nations.

As numbers of Covid-19 cases begin to drastically rise the only way to prevent catastrophe in Latin America is for the strongest possible preventative measures to be taken, for all US sanctions to be lifted and for the highest possible levels of international solidarity to help provide the resources and expertise needed to defeat the virus.

The evolving coronavirus crisis in Latin America

Coronavirus is spreading across Latin America, with the number of cases rising in almost every country in the region.

On 24 March the World Health Organisation reported that there were a total of 5,626 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these 1,728 are new cases recorded in the previous 24 hours, indicating a 44% rise in the overall number of cases in that period. If this rate of increase continues the number of cases in Latin America and the Caribbean will double every few days.

At the time of writing in five countries – Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Uruguay – the situation is already worse than at the peak of the outbreak in China, in relation to population. The situation in Brazil is deteriorating very quickly and is on course to become much worse than the peak of the outbreak in China within a few days.

Comparing cases in absolute numbers in different countries disguises the real impact because China, the first country to suffer attack by the virus, is much bigger than every country in Latin America. To understand the real intensity of the crisis it is therefore necessary to compare the situation of Latin American countries relatively in proportion to China’s population.

The peak of the outbreak in China was on the 5 February when China recorded 3,887 new daily cases. Looking at the worst outbreaks of coronavirus in Latin America so far, based on World Health Organisation data using a 3-day moving average to remove the effect of any purely short term shifts, the worst affected countries in Latin America are the following:

  • Panama: China is 329 times larger than Panama. So Panama’s current number of daily new cases is equivalent to 22,818 daily cases relative to China’s population This is 5.8 times worse than China’s peak day in relative terms.
  • Ecuador: China is 80 times larger than Ecuador. So Ecuador’s current number of daily new cases is equivalent to 11,339 cases relative to China’s population. This is 2.9 times worse than China’s peak day in relative terms.
  • Uruguay: China is 399 times larger than Uruguay. So Uruguay’s current number of daily new cases is equivalent to 9,040 cases relative to China’s population. This is 2.3 times worse than China’s peak day in relative terms.
  • Chile: China is 72 times larger than Chile. So Chile’s current number of daily new cases is equivalent to 7,527 cases relative to China’s population. This is 1.9 times worse than China’s peak day in relative terms.
  • Costa Rica: China is 274 times larger than Costa Rica. So Costa Rica’s current number of daily new cases is equivalent to 4,113 cases relative to China’s population. This is only slightly worse than China’s peak day in relative terms.

In Brazil the 3-day moving average currently shows that the country has 2,054 cases in proportion to China. This number is rapidly increasing.

The coronavirus is also spreading fast in Peru, Argentina and Columbia.

This is a critical life and death situation, where millions of people could die if the virus is not got under control. Decisive preventive actions from governments in Latin America, alongside international assistance and support are needed in this very dangerous situation.

Bolsonaro is leading Brazil into a catastrophe – US intervention has weakened Brazil and Bolivia’s capacity to fight the coronavirus  

The US offensive against the left in Latin America has left the continent more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. In both Brazil and Bolivia recent US-backed coups have brought to power leaderships that are proving negligent and unprepared to save lives and contain Covid-19.

The situation facing Brazil is harrowing. Like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro has been recklessly downplaying the threat represented by the coronavirus – declaring on 10 March that the virus was a media fantasy. On that same day the World Health Organisation reported that there were over 113,000 confirmed cases globally.

In the two weeks since those comments, as of 24 March, the number of global confirmed cases has more than trebled to 372,757 with Brazil’s cases soaring upwards, increasing by over 60 times from 25 cases to 1,546 cases.

The fact that Brazil has such an ultra-right wing leadership at the helm during this unfolding crisis is a direct consequence of US intervention. In Brazil the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018 represented a victory for US foreign policy in Latin America and the consolidation of a US coordinated soft coup against the Workers Party (PT) which began with the ousting of democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Bolsonaro only won the Presidential election after left wing front-runner and PT candidate Lula da Silva was barred from standing after being jailed on fake charges of corruption in a blatant manoeuvre coordinated by the US Department of Justice in collaboration with Brazil’s right wing judiciary.

Eyes On Latin America spoke to Brian Mier the co-editor of the Brasil Wire website about the implications that this US soft coup has had in compromising Brazil’s capacity to respond effectively to the coronavirus outbreak currently spreading across the country:

“After the 2016 coup, President Temer and his allies passed a constitutional amendment which froze public health spending for 20 years. Then Bolsonaro kicked 8,000 Cuban doctors out of the country for ideological reasons, leaving rural areas and slums across the country with no doctors. Bolsonaro also cut the health budget by $250 million. As a result Brazil is woefully unprepared to deal with this crisis.”

So far Bolsonaro’s response to the coronavirus has been criminal and is risking mass deaths in Brazil. On Sunday 22 March he again described the coronavirus as a media “trick” and comparable to a “little flu.” Bolsonaro has taken no serious measures to combat the spread of the disease.

Governors in a number Brazilian states have taken matters into their own hands and started to implement ‘lockdowns’ by closing shopping malls, schools, public buildings and sporting events in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Bolsonaro has responded by attacking the Governors for taking such necessary actions, declaring that they are “job killers” and pursuing economically damaging “scorched earth” tactics.

Bolsonaro’s whole orientation is to protect the economic interests of capitalists, not defend the lives and livelihoods of the Brazilian people. This approach is facing resistance. He has been forced to roll back on a Presidential decree which would have allowed employers to suspend workers for four months, which would have left millions without wages or the capacity to claim unemployment benefit.

Pots and pans protests have erupted in major Brazilian cities every night for the past week as those quarantined in their homes express their disgust at Bolsonaro’s handling of the unfolding coronavirus crisis from their windows and balconies. A survey shows that 64% of Brazilians reject the way that Bolsonaro is handling the epidemic.

The prospect of the virus spreading uncontrollably in the favelas (slums) which have poor infrastructure, lack clean running water and are overcrowded, is causing major concerns that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming over Brazil. In this context Bolsonaro’s failure to implement preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus is a mistake that could costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

As pointed out on Rio On Watch, the difficulties in containing a major outbreak of the coronavirus in these poverty-stricken slums are extreme:

“How do you sterilize your hands if the government will not guarantee a constant supply of water, and if sanitizer is expensive and in low stock because it was hoarded? How do you isolate if the homes of favela residents frequently shelter many people in a small space, sometimes with little air circulation, and with the majority of workers without the option of staying home without being fired or without a guaranteed income? How do you stock up on food when salaries are low and savings hard to accumulate?”

It is clear that Lula da Silva would be providing a totally different response to the situation if he was President instead of Bolsonaro. Lula summarised his approach to the issue very succulently on 20 March when he said: “after we save the people, we can discuss how to save the economy.”

Meanwhile in Bolivia the prospect of a major outbreak of the coronavirus is being seen as an opportunity for the US-backed dictatorship to consolidate its military coup against Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) of November 2019 according to Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas.

Vargas says:

“Coronavirus presents a huge problem in Bolivia for the regime because they will be left with an economic crisis which their new economic model will not be able to absorb. They have been cutting benefits and social welfare just at a time when people are going to be having to stay at home. If they plan to sell off large parts of state industry they are going to be left without revenue with which to rebuild the economy.

“They are turning this into a bit of an opportunity for themselves by using the crisis to militarise large parts of the country. Now they can suspend the elections, they can bring in all sorts of measures whilst people are at home and of course the only power that the left has, the MAS has, is its ability to mobilise large numbers of people so without that the government is in a much stronger position to ram through some unpopular policies. In Bolivia the coronavirus is a good pretext to ramp up repression to a point that they would definitely think twice about in normal circumstances.”

One of the first actions of Bolivia’s dictatorship after the coup in November was to expel 700 Cuban doctors from the country which now leaves many of the country’s most vulnerable communities at risk.

Venezuela fights coronavirus in the face of US sanctions

Venezuela is fighting the coronavirus despite the harsh economic sanctions that the US has imposed on the country. The approach of Venezuela’s government is to prevent the virus spreading.

On Monday 16 March, with 33 confirmed cases, the Venezuelan government announced a national “collective quarantine.” A week later on 23 March, with the number of cases at 70, the Venezuelan government announced a series of measures to guarantee the living standards of the population including the suspension of rent and mortgage payments for six months and state support for public and private sector workers. Job dismissals, evictions and utilities shut-offs as a result of quarantine have all been outlawed. Venezuela is undertaking widespread testing of the population for Covid-19 after China and Russia have responsibly sent thousands of testing kits. Serious preventive health and safety measures are being carried out in public spaces, for example subway workers are thoroughly disinfecting the carriages in Caracas.

At this time of international emergency, the US is increasing sanctions on Venezuela and threatening a naval blockade against the country. Venezuela’s President Maduro has condemned the US for blocking ships that are supposed to be delivering food and medicine to Venezuela. Venezuela’s application for an emergency loan of $5 billion to confront the coronavirus emergency has been rejected by the IMF.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research points out that the US economic sanctions which have been imposed on Venezuela since 2017 have already resulted in “increased disease and caused tens of thousands of excess deaths” by causing shortages in medicine and food supplies. Continuing to impose and ratchet up the sanctions during a global health emergency with the goal of undermining the country’s capacity to deal with the pandemic is nothing short of a crime against humanity.

 The priority must be saving lives

“We are not at the mercy of this virus. Let hope be the antidote to fear. Let solidarity be the antidote to blame. Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.” – World Health Organisation Director-General.

The coronavirus can be defeated. The measures required, as has been shown in practice, are: widespread and timely testing, rigorously enforced quarantines, ensuring incomes and food and medical supplies to the population under quarantine, vastly expanding the healthcare infrastructure by creating temporary hospitals and comprehensive health and safety measures for workers and the public.

Solidarity, assistance and cooperation are needed in the global struggle to combat Covid-19. US aggression and sanctions against countries fighting against outbreaks of Covid-19 in Latin America are crimes against humanity and must be opposed.

The above article was originally published on Eyes On Latin America.