By Lucas Canteros-Paz
Around the globe, authorities and experts are preparing for the second wave of COVID-19 infections, yet in the Americas, there’s still no end in sight to the first.
Currently, most countries in Latin America are seeing their daily cases and deaths increase, and in the past two weeks, this region accounted for over half of coronavirus-related deaths worldwide. Brazil, the most populous nation in the region, has reported more than 1.2 million cases, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru are forecasted to have more than 10,000 deaths each, according to Reuters. Worryingly, researchers say these numbers could be even higher due to low testing rates. Although the situation in Latin America seems to get worse every day, efforts to contain and treat the virus have been marred by corruption scandals and profiteers who seek to use the pandemic for their own economic gain.
According to various experts, the pandemic has actually facilitated attempts of corruption for public officials in Latin America. By declaring a state of emergency, several countries have suspended regulations governing public contracts, adjourned in-person congressional meetings, or abolished rules requiring them to respond to media requests for information. These actions have resulted in reduced transparency and have left thousands across the region without the necessary resources to treat the deadly virus.
For instance, Bolivia’s former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, is awaiting trial for corruption charges after the ministry over-paid for 179 ventilators that did not even work properly. According to Al Jazeera, Bolivia initially paid $27,683 for each ventilator from a manufacturer in Spain when the actual price was estimated to be about $11,000. Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest nations and is currently experiencing political turmoil after the controversial resignation of Evo Morales. Due to the nation's current economic state and the governments failed policies, many patients have been turned away from hospitals.
Also, in heavily impacted Ecuador, prosecutors revealed that they identified a criminal ring that colluded with health officials. One of their leaders, Daniel Salcedo, was detained after reportedly selling body bags to hospitals for 13 times the actual price. As a result, many hospitals in the Guayaquil area were forced to dispose of bodies on the streets.
Most notably, Peru’s police chief and interior minister were forced to resign after their deputies were caught purchasing diluted hand sanitizer and useless face masks for their officers. Thus, more than 11,000 police officers have been infected and at least 200 have died of the virus. Due to the lack of law enforcement, the government has failed to enforce lockdown orders, and currently, Peru has the 6th most cases in the world.
Although scandals in Latin American countries are not very surprising given that they consistently rank amongst the most corrupt in the world, it is clear that many government officials and members of law enforcement have abused their power during the pandemic. A recent survey by Transparency International revealed that more than half of the region’s residents believe the problem of corruption to be getting worse. They also found that a fifth of survey takers admitted to paying a bribe in the past year.
But, many still remain optimistic that social pressure against corruption could bring massive change to Latin America. In the same report, it was found that 77% of survey takers believed that ordinary people could make a difference in the fight against corruption despite fears of retaliation.
Before the pandemic, massive protests against corruption and economic inequality erupted in several countries. For instance, protesters in Ecuador blocked highways and fought with security forces when the government decided to remove fuel subsidies in 2019. After the mass protests, the government backed down from their decision. Similarly, many people in Chile took to the streets after the government raised the price of public transportation. Although prices have only increased a mere 4%, these protests are representative of a greater economic divide between the top 1% and the rest of the nation.
Also, the use of social media has made it easier for people to publicly denounce corruption. For example, in 2016, Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht admitted to paying over $788 million in bribes for over a decade after public pressure. This led to the jailing of several former company presidents. Optimists also point to Paraguay’s successful implementation of a platform that allowed users to track the status of 110 emergency accounts worth over $26 million. This will allow citizen groups to monitor how resources are being spent to address the pandemic.
In Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Countless lives are still being lost each and every day. It is up to the authorities of each nation to do what's necessary to protect their citizens, but it is clear that many are using the virus for their own economic benefit. Only time will tell whether this trend will continue.