Latin America and the different regions that make up this geopolitically and culturally fragmented entity are undergoing an unprecedented shock. Like the rest of the world, the subcontinent is subject to highly destabilizing consequences generated by a contagious virus called coronavirus.

Coronavirus came as an unexpected revelator of the political and social trends that prevail both within and outside of Latin America. While this aspect is of great importance, it remains secondary at this point in time given that the current priority is the health emergency. Coronavirus may have reached Latin America later than other places, but it was still expanding rather quickly as of April 2020.

The accelerated expansion of this virus at the international level put in perspective national dynamics and the way they are doing on the different continents of the world. This also prevails for the 19 countries that are part of the Latin American subcontinent.

The coronavirus provided us with a picture of a unique historical moment. It allowed us to see how compelling, nonetheless opaque, legitimizing narratives try to hide the real figure of political and social mechanisms.

The goal of this article is not to bring up theories, nor seek to point out the alleged political and moral irresponsibility of some specific troublemakers. It is merely to describe the current state of play, without speculating upcoming evaluations. The cycle of transmission of the coronavirus along with its proposed solutions is still ongoing and has yet to be determined at this stage.

We want to present a sort of preliminary report in which we elaborate on a series of observations about political and social findings in the wake of the virus outbreak.

As a matter of fact, with the earthquake that it generated, this virus has shed the light on Latin American societies, their dynamics and their foundations in a rather exceptional way.

Finding number one – The participation of Latin America to this pandemic is twofold

  • Coronavirus reached all Latin American countries

At the beginning of the year 2020, the available data could make us think that Latin America was not affected by the coronavirus, nor would it be. However, on the 26th of February, the first death related to the virus was reported in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As of March 2020, covid-19 had already spread in all Latin American countries. On the 19th of March 2020, Haiti was the last country to report a case.

Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAOH), described the regional state of play on the 7th of April 2020. The first death related to the coronavirus in Latin America was on the 26th of February 2020. One month later, on the 27th of March, 10,000 victims had been reported already. One week later, the number of victims escalated to 20,000. Four days after, the victims of coronavirus had reached a total of 30,000 persons, with 11,130 of them located in Brazil. Contagion was particularly fast in Brazil: in twenty-five days, between the 26th of February and the 21st of March 2020, cases went from 1 to 1,000. Moreover, in the six days that followed, between the 21st and the 26th of March 2020, they went up to 2,000 cases.

The pandemic spread at different speeds depending on the countries. In absolute terms, the highest number of infections was registered in Brazil, followed by Chile, Ecuador, Panama and Peru. When measured in relative terms, i.e. with the cases brought down to the total population of each country, the states that were affected the most by the pandemic were Ecuador and Panama.

As of April 2020, covid-19 cases were peaking on the whole continent. Some countries, such as Brazil and Ecuador, had even reached a situation similar to Spain and Italy, with the registered cases duplicating.

  1. Coronavirus came to Latin America though traditional channels related to globalization

Latin America entered the era of globalization in the late 15th – early 16th century. This openness to the rest of the world was provoked by a health crisis. The pox brought with European conquerors to Latin America decimated indigenous populations. Today, once again, we can see that covid-19 generated from Europe and made its way to Latin America.

It is as if epidemics had always reached Latin America coming from the east, from Europe. The first person reported dead in the economic capital of Brazil, Sao Paulo, was back from Italy. The majority of the other identified cases also came from Italy, followed – in lesser numbers – by Spain and France. People that spread this disease were either tourists that came from these three countries, Latin Americans back from Europe, or migrant workers. The historical patterns and colonization were still generating consequences in a rather paradoxical way. Indeed, up to now, there is a discrepancy between commercial flows, economic relations and human circulation. The United States and China are the main partners of Latin America, but there are far more airplanes flying between Latin America and European main cities as well. This explains why the contagion came from Europe directly, not from its original home, China.

Latin American countries that have good flight connections with Europe and that count as privileged destinations for tourists were the most affected by the pandemic. They include Cuba, Costa Rica, Peru and the Dominican Republic. It is particularly enlightening to compare this situation with the ones that prevail in Haiti, a neighbor to the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, which is located next to Costa Rica.

The fact that the pandemic ended up striking those places that are an important component of the international economic flows also makes sense. Coronavirus has reached Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru through three types of locations: port cities, towns with important airports and plane infrastructures, and places known for having an important banking and service sector, such as Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Guayaquil, Mexico and Lima. Furthermore, Panama was the country with the highest number of coronavirus confirmed cases relative to its population in Latin America. Panama’s economy depends on the income that is generated by both the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal, and a platform of banking and services that counts as one of the most performing ones in the world.

Last, Latin American countries whose populations tend to migrate massively to developed countries have been affected in a more significant way. Ecuador is a perfect case in point. More than 400,000 Ecuadorians live in Spain, one of the countries that counts among the most affected by the pandemic. By March 2020, Ecuador was the Latin American country that counted the biggest number of victims following Brazil. It is not only until the beginning of April 2020 that the United States became the main continental cluster. It remains to be seen whether Mexico and the central American countries of the Northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and Salvador) will face a dramatic increase of covid-19 cases especially after Donald Trump’s announcement on the 20th of March 2020. His plan aims to accelerate the deportation of illegal immigrants, which of whom millions are Latin Americans (To be followed).

(This article is the first of a series of five that will look into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis on Latin America).

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.

This article first appeared in French on the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

J-J. Kourliandsky (2020). “How did the coronavirus reach Latin America?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, May 5, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/how-did-the-coronavirus-reach-latin-america-j-j-kourliandsky/ 

This article is part of a series of five that look into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis on Latin America. To read the other articles:

How did the coronavirus reach Latin America? – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the economy – J-J. Kourliandsky

From COVID-19 to Latin America’s inequalities – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the art of political manipulation – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the impossible quest for a consensus – J-J. Kourliandsky