Prof. Dr. Delia González de Reufels (photo: Steven Keller)
Prof. Dr. Delia González de Reufels (photo: Steven Keller)
Delia González de Reufels explains in an interview why Latin America has become the hotspot of the Covid 19 pandemic and how the countries are pursuing different strategies to cope with it.

The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading rapidly in Latin America. What's your take on the situation?

The WHO has only recently declared Latin America the new hot spot of the pandemic, and the situation is really frightening. Unlike in Ecuador, where the first case occurred as early as the end of February in connection with a visit to a relative of a woman living in Madrid, corona infections were not recorded in many countries until mid-March. This meant that people generally had more time to prepare for the outbreak than Europe and the USA, for example. However, this valuable time was often not used or could not be used.

How do you explain this?

It may sound trivial, but one of the explanations is that in the face of an impending pandemic, it is not possible to suddenly remedy all the failures of the past in the health sector. The Corona crisis exposes the weaknesses of health systems and general infrastructure, as well as the extent of corruption. At the same time, the crisis exacerbates existing social inequality, political problems and tensions. To name but one infrastructural shortcoming: not all households are supplied with drinking water everywhere. Those who have to fetch water meet neighbours there and will inevitably come into contact with many people. Decades of cutbacks in the health sector - and Mexico is a good example of this - also have a direct negative impact. In Mexico, public spending on health has remained the same despite a growing population. For years, they have amounted to just under 3% of the national budget. If you compare this with the expenditure of other countries in the hemisphere, only Guatemala and Venezuela spend less on health. This is in stark contrast to the importance Mexico used to attach to the health sector. After all, the country had invested heavily in public health and social security since the 1940s.

Another reason why the pandemic has hit many Latin American countries so hard is the populism of individual governments. Here, no attempt was made to counter the pandemic in a timely and targeted manner; rather, the danger of the corona virus was played down for a very long time. This also applies to Mexico. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador briefly reached into his jacket pocket at a rally in response to a question and took out two images of saints. He held them up and claimed to feel well protected. He explained that nothing could happen to him. In doing so, he actually evaded the question of government measures against the pandemic and gave the simple Mexicans the signal to be one of them; he did not concern himself with the scientific findings on the new virus. Recently, he has again refused to be tested for Covid-19 because he shows no symptoms. At the same time, the President signals: "This government sees no reason to do anything and, for example, to increase the testing capacities. We can see the terrible consequences of this attitude these days.

The virus has also spread with dramatic consequences in Brazil, where the pandemic as a whole was negated by President Jaïr Bolsonaro. The province of Amazonia, which is medically undersupplied, has suffered a dramatic loss of life, particularly among the indigenous populations. But even in a city like Sao Paulo, graves have become scarce in recent days, and the cemetery administration has been instructed to exhume those who died a long time ago and to store the bones in containers until further notice. This should make room for the many new dead. At the same time the true dimensions of the crisis are being obscured. The decision taken by the Ministry of Health to no longer publish infection numbers speaks for itself. However, it could not be maintained because it was criticised equally strongly at home and abroad. And Mexico did not always provide all the figures either, as was shown by the reports of medical personnel. These staff were often unable to reconcile their own observations with the figures published for the capital city of Mexico, for example.

Are there any counter-examples, i.e. governments in Latin America that have taken the crisis seriously and adopted good practice from other countries?

In the CRC's project B02 we look at Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, which are considered pioneers in the field of social policy and public health. And indeed, all three countries took far-reaching measures at a very early stage that fit in with what we know from Europe and are obviously oriented towards these instruments. However, in the southern hemisphere, the virus broke out in the autumn and the peak of the outbreak will be in winter. That will shape the crisis, but all three countries are operating quite successfully:

For example, since the first case was reported in mid-March according to official authorities, Uruguay has had surprisingly low infection rates and few deaths. According to official figures, the death rate here is 0.65 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is mainly attributed to the good condition of the health system, in which governments have continuously invested over the last ten years. The early closure of borders, schools and air traffic and the banning of major events may also have been decisive, but there were no curfews. Now, gradual relaxation is to take place, and the low infection rates have encouraged the government of President Luis Lacalle Pou to do so.

The situation is somewhat different in Chile, where almost 3000 people have died so far. Strict initial regulations continue to apply here, schools and universities remain closed. Santiago residents are only allowed to leave their homes two days a week, and then only with a pass and to do their shopping. These strict
Regulations affect the precariously employed particularly hard and are also problematic because they have fallen in a period of violent protests. In the social media it has already been suspected that the virus would suit the government of Sebastián Piñera. Unemployment, which is already rising, is further increasing social inequality, while at the same time the infection figures are still at a high level, so that easing is unlikely to be announced in the foreseeable future. The peak of the corona crisis is also still to come in Chile. Meanwhile, the unsuccessful health minister has been replaced, whose lack of intervention in the pricing of medicines had also been criticised in previous protests.

Argentina has been very successful so far, as the almost 30,500 infections (as of June 14, 2020) show, although the infection figures in Buenos Aires are currently on the rise again. The strict measures that the country has taken since 20 March can be considered the reason for the success in fighting the virus so far. In the field of public health, the Peronist government of Alberto Fernández has acted quickly and decisively. Right at the beginning of the crisis, it had declared its intention to build ten new hospitals in and around Buenos Aires. This was a very ambitious announcement in view of the foreign debt that the country has to pay and which also sets limits on the aid that can be given to the workers. However, it was probably a reaction to the news from China, where, given the dynamics of the outbreak, new hospitals were quickly built and the additional treatment places were apparently needed. Recognizing that urban density, as in Wuhan or New York City, is a major factor in the spread of the disease, the government has paid special attention to the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. The outbreak here has prompted the government to extend the "social distancing" measure until June 28, although other regions with lower infection rates may act more flexibly. For a period of 65 days, La Pampa did not count any new cases, and it was only in these days that the sixth infected person was reported at all, who immediately went into quarantine. So here too we see the application of the measures already practised in China.

Looking at the statistics of reported cases, it is striking that the countries of Latin America are affected to very different degrees.

There is obviously a connection between not testing and not knowing. At present, for example, the number of infections in Peru is rising rapidly, but it must be assumed that the number of unreported cases is much higher, which also affects the number of deaths. People die without being tested. This is also the case in Nicaragua. It is completely unclear how many people there have fallen ill with Covid-19 and how many have died of it. In the death certificates, pneumonia is given as the cause of death because the patients were simply not tested. This also means that they do not appear in the statistics. Instead, the government, which two years ago was the target of massive protests, is declaring that it is following the Swedish model. However, the alleged adoption of the Swedish model is an attempt to hide the fact that they do not have the necessary infrastructure and resources for a different approach.

Mexico had similar plans ...

Mexiko's president had also stated that the crisis would be managed without measures that were harmful to the economy. This is due to the fact that many people in the country are precariously employed or work in the informal sector. What do all the street vendors, the domestic workers do in lockdown? Those who have no savings cannot afford to stay at home. In a federally organized state like Mexico, however, the governors of the 32 states are of great importance, as the Corona crisis has shown. They have ordered lockdowns, closed schools and universities. But in some cases the infection rates were already very high.

What are the economic consequences for Latin America?

Arrangements such as those made by Germany, for example, with very generous support packages for the economy and workers, are something most countries cannot afford. Unemployment is therefore very high, although it is known that the unemployed in the informal sector do not appear in the statistics. As a result, the countries will slide into recession, and then it will become clear whether this will shake the faith in democracy and possibly attract other actors. In Brazil there was already concern that the military could be called in as a stabilizing factor. That would be fatal in a country that has experienced such a long and brutal military dictatorship, which has still not been dealt with.

Are there any other characteristics of the course of the pandemic in Latin America?

An important aspect is that these countries often fail to protect medical personnel consistently. In the long term, this will lead to an erosion of the efficiency of health care provision. There have been shocking reports from the beginning of the outbreak in Mexico City - which colleagues have confirmed to me - when hospital staff were instructed not to wear face masks or the like in order not to unsettle the citizens. There was concern that panic might break out among the population because they might understand that the pandemic is more dangerous than the government claims. The staff is still unprotected now because there is no protective clothing and masks in sufficient numbers. Doctors and nurses report that they have to find it themselves and buy it privately or use masks several times.

The government regards the population not as mature citizens, but as a people that must be manipulated.

Yes, that can also be seen from the fact which countries are prepared to give a precise insight into the figures of the outbreak. In Brazil, there have also been accusations that the situation in Amazonia is verging on genocide. Because indigenous populations are not protected by the authorities from contact with smugglers and gold-washers and other invaders into their territory. The population there was and is medically undersupplied, has no access to resources and no lobby. This is also very worrying.

Absolutely, but unfortunately it fits the priorities of the government.

That's right. Brazil under Bolsonaro aims very strongly at an economic development and penetration of the Amazon at the expense of the population living there. Marching towards a human and ecological catastrophe.

How does the Corona pandemic affect your research?

I wanted to fly to Chile in March for archival work. But I had to cancel the trip.

Travel will be difficult for many more months. What consequences does this have for your project?

We were lucky that we went on archive trips at a very early stage and reviewed and collected a lot of material. But on the other hand, now that we are evaluating our sources, gaps are appearing which we would like to close. The only question is, how can we do this? After all, European collections of sources are now becoming accessible again. But there remain the Latin American archives, which we cannot consult at present. This is definitely a burden, especially since there is no certainty for planning. We cannot assume that we will be able to close the gaps in the coming year. When the archives will be open again and when we can travel is unfortunately completely uncertain.

Prof. Dr. Delia González de Reufels
CRC 1342: Global Dynamics of Social Policy, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaft / FB 08
Universitäts-Boulevard 13
28359 Bremen
Phone: +49 421 218-67200