The “Lingering Effects” and Political Impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America: Cynthia J. Arnson

The economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean continued into its second grinding year, wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods and roiling politics throughout the hemisphere.  If, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), 2020 witnessed the worst economic contraction in 120 years, 2021 saw a return to growth in most countries, largely led by China’s demand for commodity exports and the resulting increase in prices.  That said, projected regional growth in 2021—6.3 percent—is less than the 6.7 percent average loss in the pandemic’s first year.  In one stark indicator, LAPOP’s Americas Barometer found that food insecurity affected one out of three households in 2021, an increase of 69 percent as compared to a decade ago. While avoiding explicit use of the word “inequality,” the IMF noted in its October Regional Economic Outlook that the region’s “structural characteristics”—weak health systems, the prevalence of labor informality, and limited possibilities for remote work and education—contributed to the pandemic’s “lingering effect.” Said the World Bank in September, “the scars on the society and economy will take years to fade.”

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) added other data points to the grim scenario.  LAC reached the “tragic milestone” of one million COVID deaths in May 2021, the highest per capita death rate in the world; and by early December, only 20 out of 35 countries in the region were on target to reach the goal of vaccinating 40 percent of their population by year’s end.  Top performers like Chile and Uruguay reached 84 percent and 76 percent coverage, respectively, largely with the Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm.  But health researchers have recently found that the Chinese vaccines offer almost no protection from the highly-contagious Omicron variant ravaging the globe.  Uneven and insufficient vaccination—Guatemala’s rate is only 24 percent—heightens the region’s vulnerability to Omicron and other strains that have yet to emerge.

Widespread economic reversals, successive lockdowns, and an accumulation of social frustrations have deeply impacted the region’s politics.  Polls by Latinobarómetro (LB) and LAPOP’s AmericasBarometer (AB) show that dissatisfaction with democracy is high (much as it was before the pandemic).  According to LB, less than half the region’s citizens support democracy over other forms of government, and 70 percent are dissatisfied with democratic performance.  Uruguay, El Salvador, and Costa Rica register high in citizen satisfaction, but LAPOP reports that only in six countries of the region is a majority satisfied with the way democracy works; and more than three in five believe that all or most politicians are corrupt.   Notably, according to LB, political parties rank at the bottom of the list of institutions enjoying public support.

Broad generalizations always mask critical differences.  This year Ecuador elected a centrist banker and Honduras elected the wife of a deposed former president.  Brazil in 2022 appears headed to a showdown between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the established Worker’s Party. But many traditional parties of the center-right and center-left have imploded, making way for anti-incumbent outsiders, be they a virtual unknown—Pedro Castillo in Peru—or a longtime student leader and elected parliamentarian—Chile’s Gabriel Boric.  Previously institutionalized electoral systems such as Colombia’s have continued to fragment.  Dozens of contenders have entered the race for next year’s presidential election and several of the top candidates representing heretofore unknown parties or coalitions.

Ultimately, the challenge for every leader will be to satisfy social demands for economic relief, greater opportunity, and equality at a time of mediocre or insufficient economic recovery, exploding levels of public and private sector debt, and surging U.S. inflation, which further erodes the value of regional currencies.  Chile’s Gabriel Boric will be the most visible leader to navigate these tensions.  If he can do so successfully, Chile may well maintain its status as the region’s exemplar of good governance and social inclusion.

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