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Coronavirus: How isolated Latin Americans are?

The answer depends on the data source and the assessed location

Three measures have been largely embraced in Latin American countries since the arrival of COVID-19 in the region: the suspension of classes and the recommendation that whoever can stay at home; the restriction of the entry of foreigners of all nationalities, by air or land; and prioritization of the transport and clearance of essential cargo, such as food and medical supplies to fight the disease.

Despite not facing restrictions to enter the region’s markets yet, cargo traffic has been indirectly affected by official constraints on passenger arrivals, which drastically reduced the number of incoming flights in various countries. Across the region, regional and international airlines have reduced the number of flights by up to 95% throughout April, and are gradually extending the measure until May. But beyond the official measures, are Latin Americans really staying at home? The answer depends on the data source and the assessed location.

READ ALL ABOUT COVID-19 in Latin America

About two weeks ago, Google has made available a series of Community Mobility Reports. Based on its users’ Location History feature, the reports are meant to help public health officials understand responses to social distancing guidance related to COVID-19. Each report shows data about different types of activities: retail & recreation; grocery & pharmacy; parks; transit stations; workplaces; and residential (peoples’ activities at home). 

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The data is normally available by country and states. As the location accuracy and the understanding of categorized places varies from region to region, Google does not recommend using this data to compare changes between countries, or between regions with different characteristics. Still, last week, J.P. Morgan used Google’s data to, well, do exactly this.

As published by the Brazilian newspaper Valor Econômico, a report signed by four analysts at J.P. Morgan shows that Brazilians, alongside Mexicans, are the least committed to the recommendations of social distancing from their governments, even amid more restrictive measures adopted locally by state governments and city halls.

Among six Latin American countries analyzed (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru), Mexico and Brazil had the lower average reductions in the displacement of people, of -38% and -33%, respectively, between April 3rd and 5th.

It is also curious to note that the population’s adoption of isolation is not exactly linked to the range of each country’s response to the pandemic. According to ECLAC’s COVID-2019 Observatory for Latin America and the CaribbeanChile is the country with the largest number of official containment measures (between 20 and 25) taken so far against the disease, followed by Brazil (between 14 and 19 measures) and Colombia (from 8 to 13 measures). Other countries, like Mexico and Argentina, have all taken up to 7 major measures against the pandemic.

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The follow-up map for these measures is updated weekly by ECLAC, which also brings the number of the countries’ responses to the disease on other five different fronts: education, health, economy, employment, and social protection.

When it comes to the last four fronts, Brazil is the country with the largest number of announced measures, ranging from the opening of thousands of new ICU beds to the emergency financial assistance for informal, self-employed and unemployed workers. This was already expected by the analysts since the country is the largest economy in Latin America.

So, where do people are more isolated?

Looking at the official measures collected by ECLAC and deploy by the countries, the answer is Chile. But considering the J.P. Morgan report based on Google’s mobility data, the answer would be Peru, where the drop in the average displacement of the population was -69% in the evaluated period. 

Another possible source for this assessment is the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) dashboard, which is powered by Waze for Cities program. In it, Peru is also the highlight of the region when it comes to adherence to the isolation measures (see the traffic congestion data by country below). 

Source: IDB.

But it’s curious to see that Sao Paulo, the epicenter of COVID-19 in Brazil, is particularly compliant with the local measures taken there, in comparison to other larger Latin American cities (see the traffic congestion and public transport data in selected cities below).

Source: IDB.
Source: IDB.

Most countries in Latin America are a few weeks away from what will be the peak of infection for the new coronavirus. In Brazil, the Ministry of Health believes that this will happen in the second half of May, for example. Still, many governments are relaxing some of the restrictions or recommendations for social distance.

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On Monday, the Argentine government, which had stipulated a quarantine for the entire country on March 20th, announced that it will allow some activities to resume work, including stores that do not provide mass services to the public, and dental health services. Also on Monday, Colombia has decided to extend its isolation measures till May 11th.

The WHO itself declared that there is no ideal formula for resuming activities in the face of the pandemic and that each country, or more precisely, each location, needs to regulate this resumption paying attention to its health system capacity. 

Politically, this dangerous open and close exercise is causing conflicts between presidents, governors, and mayors around the region of the Americas. Over the past weekend, while the American president Donald Trump insisted on his social networks for some of the states to allow some activities to reopen, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro brought together protesters–a highly questionable attitude from the health authorities’ point of view–to also advocating a return to work in various sectors of the economy.

The result of these actions? A direct influence on people’s self-determination against the disease. Data from the startup In Loco, which has as a database the location of about 60 million smartphones in Brazil, shows a drop in the proportion of those which spend more time at home (or within a radius of about 400 meters from it).