COVID And Latin America - The Worst Of Both Worlds
Before disembarking we were told by the pilot to complete a 'health immigration form', detailing any potential contact with COVID during the last 14 days, and to hand this to army medics who would be waiting for us upon arrival.
As promised, we were met by a swarm of medics as we got off the plane at Mexico City airport, conducting compulsory temperature checks before ushering us, health forms still in hand, to immigration.
I expected the officer to ask questions about any COVID related contact; however, to my surprise (and dismay), I was brushed through without a question asked, watching as the officer placed the health form on top of a mounting pile, without a glance.
What little remained of this public health conscious illusion was truly broken as the final border agent paid more attention to his rubix cube than the x-ray machine checking luggage.
I really was back.
Moments like these give me pause about Mexico and Latin America, the continent I love, as it fights its own battle against COVID.
The results so far have not been promising.
This region faces the worst of both worlds - high death tolls and significant economic decline.
As the pandemic’s epicentre has shifted from China, to Italy, to the US, it’s now Latin America that has the unenviable title of global epicenter, reporting over 50,000 new cases each day during this past week.
Contrary to what you might expect, it hasn’t earned this title due to a lack of strong government action or even apathy of the general population.
Yes, Mexico and Brazil, the continent's largest nations, are led by presidents who initially downplayed the seriousness of the crisis, decisions that have cost countless lives and will no doubt cost many more.
Yet the majority of nations such as Colombia, Argentina and Peru, implemented strict lockdown measures as the crisis hit, in a desperate attempt to prevent community transmission. In many cases these measures were even stricter than what was seen during Level 4 in New Zealand - the Peruvian government sent troops into the streets to keep people inside, with permission to leave only for trips to supermarkets and pharmacies. Outdoor exercise of any kind was not permitted.
The Peruvian government implemented its nationwide lockdown on March 15th, only 9 days after its first case was reported. By contrast, New Zealand took 26 days to do the same. Throughout that next week of March 23rd, New Zealand reported higher new case numbers than Peru nearly every day. The total overall cases between the two countries were less than a couple hundred during this period.
Bearing in mind these drastic initial steps each country took, how is it that as of the week of June 29, New Zealand leads the world in its performance against the virus, while Peru has nearly 275,000 recorded cases and nearly 200 daily deaths?
'If they don't work, they don't eat,’ is a phrase I hear often from friends across the region when describing the many people who work paycheck-to-paycheck, who simply can't afford to follow stay-at-home orders. This dilemma has resulted in a spiral that is particularly pronounced in countries like Peru, where the informal economy represents a whopping 73% of the labour force. The informal economy is not taxed nor monitored by the government.
Workers, particularly in these informal economies, are being faced with an excruciating choice - take the health risk by going out and working or the risk of not having food for the family by staying in. What about government support programs? They’re available, but good luck having any decent quality of life relying solely on them.
As for countries like Mexico and Brazil that are taking a less strict approach, this human sacrifice doesn't look as though it'll be balanced by less economic pain. Both the World Bank and the IMF are predicting more than a 7% GDP decline in these countries this year. If you think the near freeze in international tourism will hit New Zealand hard, consider that tourism contributes nearly 50% more to Mexico's GDP than it does to New Zealand’s GDP.
The region will recover from this. Latin America has had more than its fair share of shocks, each time bouncing back stronger than ever. Before COVID, the region's startups were attracting record levels of foreign investment as they took on entrenched industries and democratized access to finance, education and health. The continent's tech workers also could be big winners in a post-COVID world where US companies feel more comfortable hiring remote tech talent.
Why does this matter for New Zealand? Latin America is key to Kiwis’ economic future. The continent is our largest source of untapped potential to increase exports and diversify our trading partners. We currently export more to Sri Lanka than we do to Brazil - Brazil's economy is 21 times the size of Sri Lankas. Increasing trade ties with Latin America would help us grow our economy and reduce our reliance on Asia, which could allow us to be more outspoken on issues such as human rights.
We should be proud of New Zealand’s response to the crisis so far. But let’s not forget how lucky we are to live in a society where we had the means to provide for everyone during lockdown, so they didn’t need to risk their lives and to work in order to have enough to survive.