IN SOME WAYS the anti-racism protests rocking the West, and emphatically changing the topic of debate, have brought the first chapter of the coronavirus pandemic to a close. In America, where demonstrators have defied social-distancing guidelines, new confirmed cases of covid-19 have dropped by half from their peak in April; in Europe they have fallen by a third. A second wave in these regions may yet be coming. But for now, the worst has passed.
As the crisis has subsided in much of the rich world, Latin America has emerged as the new centre of the pandemic. The number of new covid-19 cases there has risen above 40,000 per day, according to Johns Hopkins University, making the outbreak there bigger than those seen in Europe or North America. Last week the region accounted for more than a third of new cases, and more than two-fifths of all deaths. In South Asia, another hotspot, new cases have tripled in the past month and now account for a tenth of new infections worldwide.
Faced with severe outbreaks, most Western governments implemented strict lockdowns, shuttering their economies, forcing citizens to stay indoors and sending cash to those unable to work. That saved lives, shielded hospitals and paved the way for a return to normal.
Such an approach is poorly suited to Latin America. Though governments in the region had ample time to impose lockdowns, and many did in the early stages of the pandemic, they have often been weak. This was sometimes deliberate. In Mexico, where streets remain packed in many cities, the government shut down the formal economy but encouraged informal workers, many of whom live hand to mouth, to keep earning a living. Social assistance for laid-off workers, meanwhile, has been patchy or non-existent.
Government figures may hide the full extent of the problem. Mexico conducts about as many tests, per person, as Bangladesh, despite being six times richer. A study of death certificates in Mexico City suggests that the toll there is three times higher than the official tally. A study in April found that in Brazil, which is reporting 30,000 new cases a day, infections may be seven times higher than government figures would suggest.
Scenes like those that played out in April in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, where hospitals turned away patients and bodies lay in the streets, may yet appear elsewhere. The coming South American winter may worsen covid-19’s spread. The Atlantic hurricane season, which is already off to a record-breaking start, will make the coronavirus harder to tackle. Those watching Latin America will get a new sense of the carnage that covid-19 can inflict—and a fresh reminder that many chapters in this pandemic remain unwritten.