Sunday, July 05, 2020

Populism, Poverty and the Pandemic

A quarter of global confirmed cases are in Latin America, and researchers have warned the death toll is likely to triple by October to nearly 400,000. The deadliest outbreaks share populist leaders, Brazil’s rightwing Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s leftwing Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Both helped playing down the threat of the virus when it first arrived. AMLO was reticent about closing down the factories that supplied the United Sates with Mexico’s decision to shun widespread testing and half of all its tests come back positive, one of the highest rates in the world. Bolsonaro opposed proven suppression measures, from mask-wearing to social distancing. 

Nevertheless, infections in Peru and Chile have now outpaced those in Mexico. Poverty has facilitated and fuelled the spread of the virus, and the poor are now bearing its brunt, while the wealthy can more easily afford to isolate themselves, and seek treatment when sick. People in informal jobs are less likely to be able to work from home, or take sick leave, so many have kept working through lockdown, and sometimes through illness.

One key reason for this is the gaping wealth gap in the world’s most unequal region, analysts say. Crowded housing and insecure work make it hard for people to distance – even when the government orders it – and underfunded, overstretched health systems potentially exacerbate the tolls.

“Income inequality in Latin America, combined with a stressed health care system, means that low-income citizens are very likely to bear the brunt of the crisis,” Linnea Sandin, associate director of the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, wrote in a recent analysis of inequality and coronavirus in the region. “Thirty per cent of the region lives beneath the poverty line, and one in five individuals lives in a slum. Sixty per cent of Latin Americans are employed in the informal sector, many without access to employment benefits or guarantees.”
“What you do see very clearly is the link between inequality and infection rates, in the way the coronavirus has played out,” said Ivan Briscoe, programme director for Latin America at the Crisis Group. “In Peru, Chile and parts of Colombia, although the lockdowns were strict, and national governments were aligned behind them, economic reality meant people couldn’t conform with them as the weeks and months went by.”
Crowded housing makes it harder for those who are able to stay at home to distance from relatives or neighbours who get infected. Many slums lack running water, making sanitation hard. Conditions like malnutrition and exposure to pollution could result in higher infection rates
The disease was brought into many countries by the wealthy returning from holidays abroad in areas where the disease was already rampant. One of the earliest cases in Brazil was emblematic of how Covid-19 arrived, and who it affected. A wealthy woman who had travelled to Italy, and felt sick enough to get a test, reportedly did not tell her housekeeper Cleonice Gonçalves of her suspicions. Days later, Gonçalves was dead.

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