Monday, March 23, 2020

Coronavirus stress test in Lat Am (March 23, 2020)

The response to coronavirus in Latin America – as in the rest of the world – has been varied, though, by now, most countries have shut down borders, to different extents, and urged citizens to stay at home. Several countries have declared states of emergency, or obligatory quarantines. 

There have been colorful highlights, of extremely dubious health impact, such as a march against the disease in Nicaragua, “Love in the Times of the Coronavirus;” populist glad-handing by Mexico and Brazil’s presidents; and cyber-patrols against misinformation by Bolivia’s democratically-challenged interim-government. Bolivia's interim-president Jeanine Añéz called for prayers and fasting, which she said was the "best weapon" to fight against coronavirus. Magical realism is not only current in the region, it’s also self-referential.

Coronavirus presents a stress test for the entire world, but in Latin America it presents a unique challenge for governments that must grapple with the combination of pre-existing democratic weaknesses, poverty, insufficient medical infrastructure, and already struggling economies. The pandemic will likely rewrite the regional political map, and could well exacerbate authoritarian trends in several countries. But it could also strengthen faltering faith in the state in others. As the crisis continues, and people realize that we are in for the long haul, Latin America’s democracies could be hit hard (or redeemed).

In this context, measures that seem reasonable to combat viral spread – like using the armed forces for logistics or policing -- require extra attention, as Human Rights Watch warned last week. (See last Thursday's post.)  Lockdowns, and how they will be enforced, will build on concerns over security force responses to protests throughout the region last year, and ongoing questions over the use of military in combating crime. Argentina's government, for example, seems to be trying to such concerns with the need to enforce an obligatory lockdown. This weekend President Alberto Fernández said he will seek to avoid declaring a state of emergency, and that the military will be deployed only for support (field hospitals, humanitarian aid), not internal security. (Página 12, Infobae)

Indeed, one of the main challenges for Latin America’s governments will be finding a balance between necessary concentration of power in order to marshal an institutional response to a health crisis, and the potential overreach of leaders with a documented tendency to do so. Critics of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s coronavirus response question conditions in forced quarantine sites for returning travellers and a 30-day wait period.

As the crisis continues non-essential government institutions will increasingly shut-down, and civil society’s challenge will be how to control that reasonable crisis responses don’t go to far – and how to define what too far is, under the new pandemic normal. And, in the measure that armed forces participate in successful interventions with regards to coronavirus, there is the future danger of normalizing military participation in public life.

As elsewhere in the world, it’s hard to predict what will happen in the pressure pot of social distancing and quarantines. But we are a region known for taking dissatisfaction to the streets. What will happen as initial goodwill gives way to exhaustion and economic stress? And how will democratic rights to protest work within reasonable health limitations?

Coronavirus presents a sort of wildcard in various political processes that were playing out in national contexts. "Disasters are always a challenge but frequently provide authoritarian governments with an opportunity as the de facto power they wield suddenly becomes much more important to the population and its neighbors," write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas in the last Venezuela Weekly. Venezuela’s legitimacy-challenged Nicolás Maduro has taken strong measures to quarantine citizens, a move that shored up his low approval ratings, but his governance could be challenged by an expected Covid-19 health hecatomb. Bolivia’s interim government has postponed the May presidential election redo (see briefs below), which could dangerously prolong the country’s political legitimacy limbo. As the virus spreads in Brazil and Mexico, Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, respectively, could face backlash for their dismissiveness regarding the threat. (See briefs below.) An ongoing evening balcony pot-banging protest against Bolsonaro entered its sixth night, yesterday. (Guardian)

A final warning from the Latin America Risk Report: "Those Latin American countries that are acting early should learn from the example of the US and not believe that the extra two weeks of suppression are enough to stop the virus. The countries that succeed in using the next two weeks wisely will be the ones who prevent the most deaths and get their economies back to growth the quickest."

News Briefs

  • At least 23 inmates died in prison riots in Colombia over the weekend, after protests erupted in 13 penitentiaries. Inmates said they were demonstrating against lack of coronavirus prevention policies, while officials described the episodes as escape attempts, reports the New York Times. (See Reuters and Wall Street Journal, too.)
  • Bolivia's interim-government instituted a coronavirus quarantine starting today. It said it will postpone the May 3 presidential election re-do, and did not set a new date for the vote. (Reuters)
  • Ecuador's health and labor ministers resigned on Saturday, after a drastic increase in coronavirus infections, reports Reuters.
  • The United States government shut off access for anyone trying to claim asylum from the Mexican border, Friday, in addition to closing the border to non-essential traffic, reports the New York Times. In practice, the United States will deport anyone caught crossing between official ports of entry.
  • There have been a number of pieces on how the coronavirus has caught Venezuela at the worst possible time in terms of economy and an already collapsed health system. An "emergency in an emergency," according to Alberto Barrera Tyzska. (New York Times Español)
  • Francisco Rodríguez explores potential financing tools and the likely need for a political agreement between the government and the opposition to implement any of them. "Faced with a direct threat to the lives of millions of Venezuelans, we have a responsibility to call for a truce to confront a real enemy," he writes. (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights)
  • Rodríguez's piece has an interesting general takeaway: "The fundamental problem of applying social distancing measures in any economy relies on the capacity of the state and society to enforce them. Social pressure and the state’s ability to supervise its application and punish its non-compliance play a role in this. Either of these two factors can be overwhelmed by the substantial economic cost that obeying these restrictions imposes on citizens."
  • This weekend, Maduro announced a series of economic measures to address the financial fallout from the spread of the coronavirus in the country, including prohibiting layoffs while also suspending rent payments and credit payments, reports Reuters.
  • The U.S. is preparing to target the Maduro government with new charges and sanctions against officials, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The New York Times reports on the dramatic story of the programmer behind Venezuela's cryptocurrency, the Petro.
  • In Peru, strong quarantine measures have pushed President Martín Vizcarra's approval rating to 87 percent, according to the latest Ipsos poll. Yesterday people sang him happy birthday from their balconies, around the country. (La República, La República)
  • Peru shut down its borders a week ago with no forewarning, stranding a large number of foreign tourists. Vizcarra’s government later issued a waiver allowing chartered flights to fly home Peruvians stranded abroad, and to allow foreign governments to repatriate their citizens, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Haitian authorities are considering economic support for people affected by coronavirus restrictions that have shut down schools and factories, reports AFP.
Quarantines in poverty
  • Analysts believe some of the most important coronavirus battles will be fought in the poorest parts of the developing world, with far fewer tools and far less capacity for isolation than higher-income countries, reports the Washington Post
  • In Brazil there are an estimated 12 million people living in favelas, and an estimated 17 percent of the country lives in some form of precarious housing -- and there have been no announcements yet as to how these populations, many without running water, will be assisted to stave off contagion, reports Página 12. Public health professionals say it won’t be long before the disease reaches the favelas, if it hasn’t already, reports the Washington Post.
  • A number of articles in Argentina focus on the difficulties of quarantine and distancing measures for the 4 million people living in informal housing conditions. Página 12 notes that for these people home is overcrowded, work cannot be done electronically, and even frequent hand-washing is a ludicrous proposition. Key government measures will include food distribution, subsidies to informal workers, and local work programs aimed at discouraging people from moving around in search of jobs.
  • In Cohete a la Luna, Vanina Escales writes about how women will be affected by quarantine: those working informally in the paid care economy, and those forced into close quarters in situations of domestic violence.
  • The International Monetary Fund said on Friday that Argentina needs substantial debt relief from private creditors to restore debt sustainability with a high degree of probability, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico closed its schools starting today and recommended distancing measures. (NPR)
Leadership failures
  • In the meantime, Bolsonaro is not backing down from his dismissive stance towards coronavirus. In an interview yesterday he called the illness "a little flu" and dismissed media "hysteria," reports the Guardian. Indeed, he attacked the governors of key states including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo who have ordered residents to stay at home and are imposing quarantines, and said they were "tricking" their constituencies.
  • AMLO competes with Bolsonaro for the region's worst leadership example, argues Diego Fonseca in New York Times Español.

I don't know about you, but in the midst of social distancing and lockdowns, I'm suffering the isolation. I'm tracking major news, but things are changing so fast and so broadly that it's hard to get local nuance. I wanted to invite readers to send me brief (Twitter style) descriptions of how coronavirus is impacting life where they are (our focus is Latin America, but I won't be strict) -- issues to focus on could be: government measures, vulnerable populations, how populations are reacting to measures (or lack of measures in some countries). 

Send them to, and I'll try to figure out how to make a coronavirus supplement to the briefing. 

I hope you are all as well as possible under the circumstances, and staying safe.

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