SEATTLE, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has hit South America hard. Out of the ten worst national outbreaks worldwide, it accounts for four, which including Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Argentina. In spite of this, South American countries have begun reopening borders to air travel and implementing a variety of other reopening policies.
As in most regions around the world, South America’s impoverished communities are among those most heavily affected by the pandemic. In Latin American cities, one in every five urban residents lives in slums, which are prone to overpopulation, lack of sanitation and inadequate water filtration. With their current health systems, Latin American countries were widely underprepared for such massive outbreaks. Social inequalities and weak social protection measures further exacerbated this.
What reopening measures a country takes will help define the rate at which it recovers post-pandemic. Countries that enforce precautionary measures like daily curfews and mandated quarantines may see lower infection rates in the upcoming months. Here are the reopening plans of three different South American countries, along with their projected impacts on each country’s most vulnerable populations.
Reopening Plans: Brazil
COVID-19 has impacted Brazil the most severely of any country in South America, in the third-largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world behind the U.S. and India. Despite this, President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged Brazil to swiftly reopen, with tourism-friendly international travel resuming at the end of July 2020. For those entering Brazil, the only requirement is proof of health insurance, which does little to block infected travelers.
In Brazil’s dominant cities, bars, restaurants and beaches have also fully reopened. Rio de Janeiro, a primary tourism destination, is green-lighting these measures in the face of 10,000 deaths, a per capita mortality rate higher than that of any country. Internal government corruption may be responsible for reopening plans, as the city’s governor was suspended in August for 180 days for receiving bribes related to the state’s coronavirus reopening response.
For Brazilian citizens, morale is low. After months of quarantine, some are rationalizing reopening as a mental health measure to combat depression. Additionally, people in middle-class to impoverished communities are less likely to avoid crowded areas in bars and beaches when they already frequent crowded public transportation or living quarters.
For impoverished communities, further reopening measures will have the most severe impact. Areas with lower healthcare capacity will be incapable of fulfilling an increased demand for services. In addition, the overall poor quality of Brazil’s urban housing poses threats to proper sanitation. People’s inability to properly isolate in small homes will exacerbate the spread among these communities, and the necessity to continue working for an income means that many will lack the option of staying home during COVID-19 spikes. Currently, Brazil’s poor, especially those living in favelas, are ten times more likely to die from the virus than more affluent citizens.
Reopening Plans: Colombia
Colombia has also been heavily affected by COVID-19. With the fifth-highest number of cases worldwide, Colombia has reported more than 800,00 cases among a population of 50 million. After nearly five months of quarantine, the country began its national reopening at the end of August 2020.
On Sept. 19, 2020, Colombia further reopened by resuming international travel to four major cities: Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and Cali. As of Oct. 1, 2020, Colombia no longer requires travelers to quarantine upon arrival. Instead, it asks them to show results from a PCR test taken within 96 hours before the time of travel and complete a CheckMig immigration form online prior to the flight. On Nov. 1, 2020, Colombia opened land and sea borders with neighboring countries.
In Colombia, the pandemic has also disproportionately affected poorer communities. Because many in these communities rely on domestic work and street vending, which halt during lockdowns, COVID-19 impedes their income. In response, the government has offered poor families $40 per household. However, with many losing their source of income, financial insecurity has increased and many have faced evictions.
Further reopening may have positive implications for Colombia’s impoverished communities. As tourism picks up again, people will be able to resume work at somewhat normal capacities and regain stable sources of income. However, COVID-19 would also spread more quickly in poor neighborhoods, where proper sanitation and reliable healthcare are not widely available.
Reopening Plans: Chile
Chile has had a high number of COVID-19 cases compared to other South American countries, with around 480,000 recorded cases in a population of around 19 million. Contrary to Brazil and Colombia, Chile implements a daily nationwide curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Travel restrictions are also strict. Only Chilean citizens may enter country, and must do so through Santiago before undergoing a fourteen-day quarantine.
In the face of these measures, Chile’s COVID-19 outbreak has pushed many middle-class families towards conditions of poverty. High levels of debt and lack of government support have left the middle-class in a vulnerable situation. Further, the government has provided little to cushion the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maintaining its strict travel restrictions may prevent foreign carriers from bringing more active COVID-19 cases into Chile. However, they it may continue to threaten middle and lower-income families’ abilities to consistently work and earn an income. This will continue to exacerbate issues like unemployment, food poverty and other tokens of financial insecurity.
Only time will tell how South America will be able to recover from its coronavirus outbreaks. Different regions will continue to implement diverse preventative measures and restrictions and cases will continue to fluctuate across individual countries. In the long term, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argues that South American countries should work toward health systems that are better funded and more resilient. “Overall, more and better health spending is needed, with a priority on reducing harmful and inefficient private spending such as high out-of-pocket expenditures.”
– Natasha Cornelissen