A grim shadow stalks the Andes, playas and Pampas—the continent is “losing its battle against coronavirus”, CNN reported on June 7. WHO calls it “the new Covid epicentre”. With good reason: 1.2 million cases, over 60,000 deaths—amid soaring food prices. But South America offers an illuminating, if frequently tragic, case-study of how political ideology can interface with pandemic control: a full panoply that defies generalisations. The most flagrant violator? Of course, Brazil’s armyman-turned-strongman Jair Bolsanaro, a “polarising and controversial” figure who comes closest to fitting the description of a far-right despot. The Lancet called him “the biggest threat” for Brazil; an opposition MP concurred, saying: “We’ve unfortunately discovered that the virus’s main ally and best friend is the president.” Brazil now is second on world charts, with nearly 7 lakh cases and over 36,000 deaths. In stark contrast, President Alberto Fernandez’s comparatively decisive Peronist government in Buenos Aires has seen perennial rival Argentina score higher on the responsiveness index (concerns about testing and data quality notwithstanding): to the tune of 22,000 cases and around 650 deaths.
Mexico, polar south to a Trumpian ‘North’ ideal, has been a study in contrasts. President Lopez Obrador asked, with cultivated casualness, what “pandemics can do to us” and also shook hands with a drug lord’s mum—but Mexico also rolled out a comprehensive response plan in January, ahead even of WHO’s declaration of the pandemic. But, despite being the first ‘Latam’ nation to use a mathematical model to map/predict the disease, systemic weaknesses and policy gaps have left its leftist government red-faced. With 1,14,000 cases and upwards of 13,500 deaths, a gradually-easing lockdown likely means more blushes ahead. Peru too is struggling, despite a responsive centrist leader in President Martin Vizcarra and one of the earliest lockdowns. Its case graph mirrors India’s: now inching close to 2 lakh, with infection reaching even interior Amazonian communities. So do other factors—a large informal economy with severe income inequalities forcing people into poor observance, a “severely underfunded” and decentralised healthcare, even a balcony show five days before India.
Costa Rica is poor too—16th in the world in fact—but has one of the lowest Latin American Covid mortality rates (0.2 deaths per lakh). Why? A robust democracy, unified healthcare with universal coverage, and a centre-left president in Carlos Quesada—a 40-year-old journalist and political scientist, pro-gay rights, serious about the environment, quite the antithesis to Bolsanaro. Chile has recovered politically from the Pinochet era, but has its first right-wing president since him in Sebastian Pinera—a billionaire with interests in banking, aviation, media and a publicity hound nightclub-owner for a brother. But, down the line, there are stark income disparities. Result: 1.3 lakh cases and food riots. (The new global popularity of quinoa as health food has led to that staple grain being diverted to exports from all Andean countries.) By contrast, Uruguay too has a centre-right president in Luis Lacalle Pou, but registers only 845 cases and 23 deaths. Then there’s Venezuela—that other US bugbear, where Nicolas Maduro, operating with a $15 million US bounty hanging overhead, presides over a Communist lodestar-turned-red dwarf. Stuck between a crude oil-shocked economy and wider socioeconomic crises, it has recorded scarcely-believable (and widely dismissed as under-reported) pandemic figures: the 28 million-strong country has apparently had just 2,300 infections and 22 deaths. Everywhere, it seems, politicos self-congratulate while the credibility gap widens.