While the novel coronavirus has made a virtue of its name and truly has proven to be an unprecedented situation for the entire planet, but, it would be prudent to point out the Latin American continent and the Caribbean islands are not new to the spread of epidemics that cause massive loss of life accompanied by debilitating economic strain.
By Aparaajita Pandey
Epidemics and pathogens have played an important role in the history and evolution of Latin America. While the novel coronavirus has made a virtue of its name and truly has proven to be an unprecedented situation for the entire planet, but, it would be prudent to point out the Latin American continent and the Caribbean islands are not new to the spread of epidemics that cause massive loss of life accompanied by debilitating economic strain.
In the past centuries Latin American countries and civilizations have suffered the spread of hazardous and in some cases life-threatening diseases like Small Pox, Yellow Fever, and Malaria. The periodic transmission of diseases like Malaria, Dengue Fever and Cholera is not unheard off and is usually anticipated every couple of years in some countries. The epidemic caused by the Zika Virus across the Latin American continent in 2016 and the economic ruin it left in its wake could be perceived as a prologue of a Post- COVID Latin America in some limited aspects.
An over worked and insufficient public health system along with political apathy and underestimation of the Coronavirus has had disastrous consequences for Latin America. The number of patients who have contracted COVID and those who have lost their lives to the disease is constantly on the rise. As the situation becomes progressively unmanageable, the politics and social threads holding the Latin America society together is unravelling. While some would say the term ‘Latin American Society’ is a gross generalization of the region, upon closer reflection, the hues of political dissent and social unrest have coloured almost every country in the continent.
Before the beginning of the COVID induced Lock-Downs, citizen’s of Chile were protesting their president’s neo-liberal policies and their ramifications that had led to increased wealth inequality and steady inflation in the price of essentials. Bolivia was in doldrums about the election of its president – Evo Morales and his less than constitutional claim to the presidency. Colombia saw its largest anti-government protests in Bogota as Colombians spilled on the streets banging pots and pans and singing Duque Ciao, their version of the famous Bella Ciao. The tear gas and curfews attempted suppression of the protest and found glimmers of momentary success.
In addition to the above, there are also deep systemic problems with Venezuela and Argentina. Brazil and Mexico could not be termed peaceful either. These issues have not been resolved and people of the countries in Latin America are still suffering, when a pandemic is added to this mix, the result is a volatile society that is impatient and eager for change.
The IMF estimated that Latin America would see its worst rate of economic growth in a decades, the already stymied economy of the region is estimated to contract further by 9.4 per cent. The report also states that those who are employed by the unorganized sector would stand to lose 80 per cent of their income, and the highest number of the ones in the age bracket of 15 to 24 years of age would be idled. The statistics regarding unemployment bolster the IMF’s claims as countries like Brazil and Argentina saw the disappearing of 1.4 million jobs and 852,000 jobs respectively.
These conditions will be placing the governments and leaders of Latin America under great stress in the coming decade. One is now looking at a continent that is ravaged by a pandemic, wrapped in social unrest and staring at the economic ruin. As the quiescent protesters would rise again once Lock-downs ease up, one would see a revival of social unrest. Latin America has long been regarded as one of the most violent regions in the world and not without reason. The region accounts for 8 per cent on the world’s population and one-third or 33 per cent of the world’s homicides. Although the rate of violent crime varies on the basis of countries, it would be a safe prediction to make that the above mentioned socio-political and economic agitations will translate into increasing crime and social violence.
However as people in Latin America vie for change, there is a glimmer of hope. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Uruguay are set to have elections in 2020 and some rounds in 2021. While it is true that the elections have been postponed due to COVID in almost all of the countries barring a few, these elections can’t be deferred indefinitely. As people began to realize the lack of political success their previously chosen leaders have had, they have now begun to look for a change. The current social upheaval may give way to a change. However, it would be difficult for the chosen leaders to deliver the magnitude of reform that the people demand, as strict austerity measures and restructuring of the existing system is pre-requisite for gainful transformation. The conflict that the region would engage in with attempting to change but not wanting to go through the motions of change is inevitable. Latin America has a long road ahead of her, and socio-political upheavals will be an undeniable part of this journey.
(The author is a Doctoral Candidate at Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies at JNU and Asst. Professor at Amity University. Views are personal.)