Coronavirus Brazil Pandemic
Residents of the Santa Marta favela, in Botafogo, in the South Zone of Rio, doing their own street cleaning to prevent the expansion of Covid-19, a new coronavirus. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Photocarioca/Shutterstock

Pandemic exposes inequality in Latin America: what can we expect (and what we can’t) from our leaders?

It is not just today that great tragedies turn into a political stage, but while the world fights against COVID-19, leaders need to understand that the only possible solution is the collective one

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Latin America‘s race for the COVID-19 vaccine has turned into a dispute over the popularity and political survival of leaders and their teams. In many countries, the population is relegated to the background, behind the political project of their rulers. This is a costly miscalculation.

It is not for nothing that Belchior’s songs returned to the playlists of Brazil. The singer is a national icon who knew exactly what is the geographical location of Brazil – in Latin America – and what that means after all.

Although multilateral actions in favor of the common purpose of vaccination are still sparse, leaders who understand the scale of what is happening do know that in the long run the only way out possible is collective, although each country faces the current situation on its own.

Our invisible biological enemy does not recognize borders, so an individual solution is not really a solution. However, we are witnessing a chaotic scenario in which each country seeks an individual solution, even with its health systems crumbling.

Since the end of World War II, when it became clear that the level of global governance should be increased and strengthened, resulting in the creation of the United Nations (and even blocs like Mercosur), little has been done to modernize them in the face of technological advances, increasing global trade integration and the disappearance of physical boundaries between people.

The COVID-19 pandemic happened and what was a project constantly going through the motions suddenly became urgent.

Continent ruled by inequality

The vaccine distribution in Latin America has no pattern. Chile, for example, leads vaccination, while countries with more political and economic representativeness, such as Brazil, are left behind.

Some say that vaccinating a smaller population is easier. But Chile is known for its policy of a minimum State, in which the state does not have the role of provider. This has even been the subject of recent popular demonstrations. Brazil, on the other hand, is world-famous for its mass vaccination programs coordinated by the State.

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Given these contradictions, while some presidents have turned vaccination against COVID-19 into a measure of political efficiency, others are already beginning to answer, also politically, for their negligence.

Funeral of a COVID-19 victim in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized worldwide for the health crisis that Brazil faces. Photo: Photocarioca/Shutterstock

This is the case in Paraguay, where, in the face of a health tragedy of much smaller proportions than the Brazilian one, Ministers of Health resign.

Argentina, in turn, made one of the most rigorous lockdowns in the world and became a producer of vaccines, even without a pharmaceutical park like that of Brazil. On the other hand, the government of Alberto Fernández suffered a severe shock with the scandal of the “VIP vaccination”, which resulted in the resignation of the Minister of Health.

The political and electoral effect of the pandemic is not exclusive to Latin America, of course, although on a continent characterized by so much inequality this is more evident. In the Middle East, for example, vaccination is saving Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu from a defenestration that, until recently, seemed inevitable. Now, no big deal with the mass vaccination of the population. Netanyahu understood: vaccination is political capital with the potential to strengthen legacies or destroy reputations.

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It remains to be seen whether Latin American leaders, our “Latin American boys”, have this understanding.

Based on the numbers on the map Our World in Data, from the Oxford University, it seems not: except for Chile, which has already vaccinated 38% of its population, the other Latin American countries have not exceeded 6%.

The Latin American boys’ summit

Mercosur turns 30 on March 26, the date of the signing of the Treaty of Asunción. The summit was scheduled to be in person, in Buenos Aires. The presence of all the bloc’s leaders was already confirmed: Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Alberto Fernández (Argentina), Mario Abdo Benítez (Paraguay) and Luis Lacalle Pou (Uruguay). Representatives from countries associated with the bloc, such as Luis Arce (Bolivia) and Sebastián Piñera (Chile), would also be present.

That is until Brazil collapses. So that this presidential meeting could take place, there was intense political sewing in Brasilia. While Casa Rosada wanted a summit in Buenos Aires, the Planalto Palace wanted to avoid protests against Bolsonaro’s presence and preferred a meeting in more neutral territory, such as Puerto Iguazú. In the end, Argentina won.

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But everything fell apart when the Argentine Chancellery announced that the meeting would be virtual. Then, Latin American boys may be left without a face-to-face again while the pandemic is on the rise.

No bloc in the world has yet successfully and effectively joined forces to contain the coronavirus regionally, although scientists have warned extensively that this is a collective battle in a world that, ironically, has spent the past few decades trying to break down barriers to strengthen trade integration.

The world today is a tangle of questions. Latin America is the epicenter of these doubts, thanks to the virus variants and the growing role of Brazil as the worst pandemic manager.

It is true that without Brazil, Mercosur would not affect combating the pandemic, but there was a hope that a face-to-face summit could accelerate this collective process of confronting the pandemic.

Latin American leaders need to understand that the pandemic is an electoral variable only to a certain extent. Without integration, the world goes backward and what can be political capital at one time is a political enemy at another.

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A true legacy will leave the first to understand that our challenge is the survival of all. The world needs global coordination, with all multilateral mechanisms functioning with balanced participation.

Our leaders must define what role they intend to play: that of political immediate or humanist, who manage to direct their brief presence on this planet to the common good.

I hope that understanding and humanity come from a Latin American boy.

Translated by Carolina Pompeo.