Originally published in ORF.
After a few unprecedented months, the world witnessed accelerated changes. During this period, we learnt many things about viruses -how it behaves and its impact on our lives and the ones around us.
After Asia, Europe and North America started witnessing the large outbreak of the virus and its impact, the same was later witnessed in Latin America. The measures taken by the hard-hit countries and the response by its citizens was a guide-book for Latin American countries. Some countries adopted early and aggressive strategies to contain the spread, such as implementing social distancing measures, quarantining the ones infected or having come in contact with an infected person. Since the pandemic has brought forth with itself severe economic challenges – the government also announced financial support for, individual and small and medium businesses, as well as enhancement of public health infrastructure.
A comparative analysis among various countries’ indicators are helpful understanding the effectiveness of the measures taken. However, the interpretation is not objective, since indicators represent absolute values on various environments, such as densely populated areas (cities), quality of health infrastructure, ability to keep normal activities in isolation, the citizens’ response and cooperativeness, and most importantly, transparency to report real numbers.
Tracking started with the number of cases and deaths and evolved to compare COVID-19 generated metrics distortion like excess deaths during an outbreak, to give a better understanding of how the system worked under stressful circumstances. Financial Times’ Coronavirus tracked – the latest figures as countries start to reopen, collected resourceful data about deaths, epidemic trajectory, and government response. The analyses and sources helped health experts and officials with the investigation and provide the population with accessible information to keep them informed about the complex and evolving situation.
Lessons learned in Latin America
Governments response varied from early lockdown and robust financial help packages like in Peru, to mild restrictions similarly to that in Brazil. Although strong measures might seem to lower the impact of COVID-19 spread, “smarter” actions demonstrated effective results, such as public-private collaboration, the use of technology, and focused reinforcement of measures.
What did not work?
Among all cities in Latin America, Lima, Peru, has the highest percentage of total excess deaths during the outbreak. In April, there was a decline by 40% in its economy – the worst economic scenario in 100 years. Lima has been of one of the fastest-growing economies in the world for the past two decades. Peru has announced one of the largest economy COVID-19 aid packages within the region (USD16MM, 12% of GDP), imposed one of the longest lockdowns of the world, and conducted 1.5 million tests, second to Brazil. This means it is the largest per capita in Latin America tied with Chile—another profoundly impacted country.
From a systemic view, two major risks cannot be mitigated with the measures mentioned above, due to the nature of the virus. First, the informal sector in Peru represents approximate 70% of the total employment force. This means that lockdown cannot be reinforced without breaking the value chain of all the activities—thus, people cannot avoid contact, and the virus keeps spreading. Second, the fragile healthcare system did not meet the demands given a normal situation, it will break under a stressful one—Since structural problems cannot be fixed overnight with money injection, the healthcare system will cripple.
Measures such as delivering monetary aid to the population in need fired back. Due to a large percentage of informal economy and lack of digital wallets, many people needed to line up to collect the money in cash, making it a hub of infection. Markets and other public places also acted as hubs, which turned out to be a problem not only in Peru, but in Mexico and Brazil as well.
In Brazil, after the President ignored warnings to avoid re-opening, the health minister resigned. Following which there were conflicts within the cabinet. This further escalated the situation in Brazil. Political distress and densely populated cities, as well as adopting measures to contain the spread but then again protecting its economy took a toll—Brazil is the second country in the world with more cases after US.
Paraguay adopted stricter measures knowing its fragile healthcare system will not be able to take the burden of the pandemic. Uruguay with its universal health, reached political consensus quickly, and thus quarantine was a voluntary measure. Both countries had controlled the situation effectively. But they are not as populated as Brazil. Their total population combined is less than the one in Lima, Peru or Sao Paulo, Brazil.
What can work?
Both a systemic approach, and a well-planned approach and quick experimentation based on the data can help monitor progress.
Countries that were successful in containing the spread of the virus were aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They also were smaller in terms of population, and thus were able to measure the impact of their actions. Larger countries are still trying to analyze the complexities of dealing with COVID-19, and map underlying, non-evident risks. Some countries are already facing a severe health as well as economic crisis
Today, most Latin American countries are isolated – this means that while on the one hand they only have to worry about their own people, then again they cannot leverage additional external resources—tests, protective equipment and more.
Government, private sector, and entrepreneurs have the best intention but are not always connected. Due to which, they are not able to tackle structural problems. Collaboration and technology are the way to keep pushing for smarter solutions to COVID-19 problems.
In Latin America, there is more than one cellphone per capita. However, many of these cellphones are not smartphones. Collecting very sophisticated information via apps has helped map a layer of information, and another layer of the manually providing information through text message. This was widely used in Peru, Medellin, Colombia, a city with a population of 3.5 million redefined a way to collect data and identify best practices. They helped people connect with resources such as cash and food, at the same time, collecting valuable information to understand the needs and future scenarios, which demonstrated to be the right approach to keep reinforcing social distancing. This initiative was led by the local government.
Public-private partnerships are other ways to generate win-win situations. Companies are eager to collaborate not only to keep their businesses running but as a social responsibility towards its people. Those partnerships help amplify solutions, which, is a problem faced by the central or local government.