COVID-19 as a Class Issue in Latin America

April 27, 2020

Coronavirus has become a household name in nearly every home across the world, keeping many people inside and fearful of going out in public. Coronavirus or COVID-19 emerged in December of 2019 in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to 210 countries with 1,677,256 cases reported globally (Gutiérrez 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has affected thousands of people in the world in various ways. When COVID-19 first emerged, well-known political and even artistic figures including Jair Bolsonaro and Tom Cruise were in the press after potentially being infected and testing positive for the Coronavirus. At this time, It seemed that this was a pandemic that so relentlessly found its way to infect the most wealthy and elite of our global society. But upon further inspection, COVID-19 has become an extreme class issue, particularly in Latin America. “Public health analysts have warned that poor and marginalized people are at a heightened risk as the virus spreads” (Mellen 2020). 

Many were stunned when famous actors, basketball players, and politicians spoke publicly about testing positive for coronavirus. Many of these upper-class elites had recently traveled abroad and had interaction with others in parts of the world that had a faster exposure to COVID-19. When these elites first came out with their positive tests, many people initially thought about how this pandemic can really affect anyone, and that no one is safe, which is absolutely true. “COVID-19 is no respecter of class — anyone can get sick. But some people are in more danger than others, and not just because of their biology. America exists in stratum” (Jones 2020). Socioeconomic class plays a substantial role in every country in how fast the virus can spread, along with who receives testing and treatment. It is countries like the United States and various nations in Latin America that have a distinct divide between the rich and the poor that fosters this difference in how coronavirus affects different populations. Skeptics have also questioned how celebrities, like Bolsonaro and Cruise, have been able to access such tests in the United States when tests have been saved for the most severe cases that are almost assured to be positive. These skeptics have been particularly critical after some of these celebrities that had been tested said they experienced little to no symptoms. This division in how we treat sick people of different classes was just the beginning of how COVID-19 is affecting socioeconomic classes differently. 

Health services and essential medical resources are already harder for those of lower socioeconomic status to obtain, especially for those that live farther from hospitals, or for those cannot afford medical insurance, or are living in a country without documentation. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, those with less resources are finding it harder to get tested, receive medical services, and pay for the cost of hospitalization. Not only is treatment an issue, but many middle to low class people are still required to go to work to support their families amidst the pandemic. “Low-wage workers, meanwhile, inhabit a higher state of anxiety. Not only do many work with the public, where the possibility of coming into contact with the virus may be high, they lack basic labor rights. That’s a problem for workers, who can’t take measures to keep themselves healthy, and for members of the public, who have to interact with people who can’t afford to call out sick” (Jones 2020). The lack of labor rights for public service jobs is an extreme public health problem that further endangers these workers and the general public. These workers are more likely to contract the virus than those that have the financial ability to quarantine themselves for an unknown extended amount of time in their safe home. The issue here is that not everyone has a safe home they can retreat to, the financial capacity to support themselves and their family for months without income, or the ability to not work. For those whose jobs have closed, it is particularly hard. 

Coronavirus was introduced to Latin America in mid-February with the first case in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries have been affected by COVID-19 with countries including Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru being particularly affected (Horwitz 2020). As of April 9th, there have been approximately 45,000 cases of coronavirus and 1,791 deaths related to Coronavirus in Latin America (Rios Montanez 2020). Various governments have responded with diverse precautions, including the closing of businesses, the support of social distancing rules, and even limiting movement by gender (BBC World 2020). However, cases of coronavirus continue to rise. “In the beginning, many of the cases followed a similar pattern, affecting Brazilians who can afford to travel abroad and pay for treatment in private hospitals” (Watson 2020). It wasn’t only Brazil that saw this pattern, but in Ecuador, Uruguay and other countries in Latin America too, wealthier citizens returned from abroad having contracted the virus. 

Latin America is characterized by having a large wealth and income inequality gap between the rich and the poor (Ibarra 2016). With wealthier people traveling abroad and bringing back the virus, it has put a strain on the public health system and is beginning to put less fortunate residents in more serious danger. Beatriz Perondo, the head of the Disaster and Emergency Committee at the Hospital das Clínicas in Sao Paulo stated, "Once they start spreading the virus to the middle and lower classes, that's when we are going to have issues with quarantine. With lots of people living in the same room, that could cause huge transmission problems” (Watson 2020). This is particularly worrisome for those that live in the shantytowns outside larger cities like Rio de Janeiro, where residents living in favelas have recently been exposed to the virus. With these people having less space, less sanitation, and less access to treatment and medical services there is a higher probability of spreading the virus due to the inability to quarantine. This potential high rate of the spread of COVID-19 could test the hospitals and public health system further, and will likely result in a higher death rate among the lower class. 

Not only is the threat of COVID-19 daunting, but the lack of resources to feed a family is too. Families living in favelas are less likely to receive income while they are unable to work. The Brazilian government has tried to reduce this problem by giving families $40 USD a month (Watson 2020). However, with the value of Brazilian currency decreasing, it still is not enough for families to sustain themselves. Other countries, like El Salvador have frozen mortgage and credit card debt and will suspend utility, cable, and internet payments for three months for those affected by the pandemic (Call 2020). This action was put in place to provide some relief for those struggling financially during this time.

Latin American governments have varied in their responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador was fast to act and banned flights from places that had a high amount of COVID-19 cases (Call 2020). Bukele initiated this policy before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in his country. He also instituted a national quarantine as a preventative measure. Other administrations have not been as precautionary, especially that of Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil. Bolsonaro has taken a slower approach to combat coronavirus by minimizing the pandemic and criticizing businesses that have closed. Bolsonaro had even been told to self-quarantine after being potentially exposed to the virus on the trip to the U.S. He ignored this instruction and even met with supporters. The precautionary measures of Bukele and other leaders are likely to try to protect the public health systems. “All these policies may be too little too late for countries whose health systems are relatively underfunded. The per capita expenditure in Latin America and the Caribbean on health each year is $949, a little over one-quarter that of Italy and OECD countries as a whole” (Call 2020). Bukele has stated that his aggressive preventionary approach is so that the pandemic does not hit El Salvador as hard as it hit Italy. With varying responses in Latin American countries, it could be that we see different rates of transmission of the virus due to the differences in governmental approach to COVID-19. 



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About Author(s)

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Mia Bristol
Mia Bristol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursing a double major in Political Science and Spanish with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During summer 2019, Mia completed research on the use and accessibility of contraception in the University setting in Manizales, Colombia through the Seminar and Field Trip by the Center for Latin American Studies. Mia intends to graduate Spring 2020 and pursue a career in foreign affairs. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.