Latin America's COVID-19 Dilemma: Pestilence or Famine?

Amid growing unrest, oil-dependent nations may have no choice but to open their economies.


"I would rather die of the virus than of hunger," says Karina Ribullen as she sells surgical masks and coffee in the open-air market of La Parada on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. "If I miss a day of work, my family doesn't eat. It's not bravery, it's desperation."

Ribullen isn't alone. Like most of working-class Latin America, the 46-year-old woman doesn't have savings; she lives hand to mouth working informally in the streets. She pays rent by the day in a shared apartment with her two daughters, ages 10 and 19, and her granddaughter, age 2. They have received no assistance from either the Venezuelan or Colombian governments. Left without another option, she defies a federally mandated lockdown to earn enough money to support her family.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented much of Latin America with an impossible choice: Continue enforcing draconian lockdown methods much stricter than those in the United States while risking economic collapse, or end the protective measures and risk overwhelming critically vulnerable health systems.

Making the dilemma even more painful, the global fall of oil prices is likely to send the oil-dependent economies of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador into severe regional economic depression. Some experts warn of a looming regional debt crisis as governments find themselves unable to meet their payment obligations.

Meanwhile, a ravaged Latin American working class reels from 6 weeks of an economic freeze. Normal work is on hold, governments have been slow or unable to deliver emergency protections, and unrest is growing.

On April 23 in Upata, Venezuela, hungry protesters raided shops and open-air markets in riots that were put down violently by police and armed gangs. Hunger-driven protests have since spread to more than 15 Venezuelan cities, as acute gasoline shortages make food distribution more difficult and as the global crisis worsens an already astronomical inflation.

In Colombia, there are nearly nightly protests. In the southern neighborhoods of the capital, Bogotá, vulnerable citizens have taken to hanging red cloths in their windows as a call for help and a symbol of growing hunger.

The World Bank's April report on Latin America predicts a 3–4 percent drop in GDP across the region, adding that the impact could be worse if oil stays weak. It further warns that a depressed economy could lead to a return to the broad social unrest of 2019, when mass protests swept the region. South America might not be able to endure a frozen economy for much longer.

Sergio Guzman is an analyst and director at Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy and political risk assessment group. "The [Colombian] government is caught between a rock and hard place," he says. "People are running on fumes. Unless the government can restart the economy soon, they will be facing an even more severe long-term downturn, and that puts vulnerable people even more at risk."

In all of Latin America, low-income communities are more at risk as they are often forced to resume work informally or go hungry. Wealthier individuals are more likely to both support and obey lockdown measures, as they have savings and resources that allow them to survive the freeze.

"The potential for unrest is very high," says Guzman. "People's hunger is growing, and it is translating into anger with police forces and the government. The crisis is increasing Colombians' awareness that government institutions aren't up to the task of dealing with this situation."

Eighty percent of Colombia's export market is driven by petroleum and mineral extraction, and both foreign and domestic companies are already pulling back on investment as weakened oil prices make exploration unprofitable. In an economy whose currency has shown a strong correlation with oil prices, this exacerbates an already looming recession. As inflation increases, a weakened Colombian peso means payments on a foreign debt ledgered in dollars becomes a heavier burden, and economic contraction becomes more painful.

The impact of the coming economic contraction will cut across all strata of society. "It isn't a matter of only affecting the wealthy," says Mathew Smith, an economic analyst and journalist in Medellin. "It means double-digit unemployment, collapse of small businesses, government rollback of spending on social programs like health and education, and a rise in crime in a region where the rate is already high."

Ecuador has been the Latin American nation hit hardest by COVID-19. Official government statistics report 506 deaths, but the local press has been claiming for weeks that the actual number is far higher. A recent New York Times study suggests the actual number may be 15 times larger. The city of Guayaquil was so overwhelmed that citizens left bodies on the streets and cemeteries were forced to use shared graves.

The economic freeze has cost the country an estimated $4.7 billion in sales, plus an unknown amount in lost oil revenue and investment. The government defaulted on its most recent foreign debt payment due to a lack of liquidity, downgrading its international credit rating. Tourism has plummeted, leaving millions economically paralyzed.

The Ecuadorian government has announced plans to slowly reopen the economy while maintaining social distancing measures. The state of the economy has left them little choice.

Colombia has announced plans to maintain its strict lockdown until at least May 11, though some businesses that have been deemed essential will begin to open this week. Local and federal officials have been at odds over how and when to formally restart the economy, with President Iván Duque pushing to open more quickly. He is opposed by a vocal group of mayors and governors. 

Venezuela has reacted to ongoing shortages by announcing plans to nationalize sectors of the food industry and implement price controls—a strategy that has worsened both inflation and smuggling in the past, as Venezuelan farmers chose to sell their goods in Colombia rather than in government-mandated markets.

As these countries weigh their limited options, officials fear that resuming normal life too soon may result in a loss of life and increased hardship. But for the most vulnerable citizens, like Ribullen, waiting too long could have a disastrously similar effect.

NEXT: 20 Years After Its Release, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask Is Eerily Relevant

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  2. The risk of dying once infected is about 99.5%.

    Starvation is a lot harder to survive.

    The choice is pretty fucking obvious.

    1. did you mean chance of survival?

    2. The risk of dying for those NOT invected by covid19 is 100%.

    3. Your numbers are wrong and not by a little bit.

  3. Either option results in massive death tolls – and not in some distant hypothetical universe that can be dismissed by those who think there is a consistent ideological solution.

    We don’t do ‘two choices – both of them bad’ very well.

    1. “Cthulhu for President. Why vote for a lesser evil?”

      1. Technically speaking, Cthulhu is amoral.

    2. I think we need a better metric than deaths for how bad something is. Not all lives are equally valuable. Sorry, but if you are going to die anyway in months or a year, I’m not so concerned about you dying a little bit sooner. I’m a lot more concerned about young people and people who can’t afford not to work for months at a time whose future prospects are being reduced and many of whose lives are probably being shortened by anxiety, depression and putting of other medical care.
      If you have two choices, both of them bad, I usually find it pretty easy to choose. Choose the one that involves the least coercion. Avoid choosing the one with certain dire consequences over the one that is more uncertain. Better to let things happen than to force them to happen according to a central plan.

      1. Not all lives are equally valuable…Choose the one that involves the least coercion.

        That may well be. And I certainly agree that we need broader metrics than mere death. But in practice, the choice that involves the least coercion is usually the one that most supports the existing status quo. Since any change to that status quo will involve both the existing coercion of that status quo and a coercion in changing it.

        I can see where this approach is highly favored – at all times – by the donor class and the power elites. And by those who, on their behalf, will justify whatever exists – now – merely because it exists – now. Whatever might change it – well all that coercion will be highlighted. And whatever coercion exists now – well that will be minimized and ignored and dismissed.

        Personally – I’m not sure though how a self-proclaimed ‘libertarian’ can ever justify that as libertarian since that philosophy is in fact conservatism (conserving what exists).

        You can see that at work in the dry irrelevances of historic discussions about the Civil War. Where a form of planterocracy ‘libertarianism’ can be rationalized – where ‘slavery will ultimately go away’ – and where no thought whatsoever is made re whether that argument of ‘slavery will ultimately go away’ is persuasive to – you know – actual slaves.

    3. We don’t do ‘two choices – both of them bad’ very well.

      Especially considering the number of retards who, if given the choice between doing bad things and allowing bad things to happen, knowingly choose the former and then shrug and say “What’s the difference?”

  4. Guess they should have introduced a more robust testing regimen.

  5. Collapse the economy or save a few lives?

    Obviously the answer is to lock it down right?

    No, the obvious answer is to Bring Out Yer Dead!

  6. Venezuela has gasoline shortages? That’s some kind of something.

  7. The majority of healthy people have little reason to worry about dying from COVID-19 – and a lot of them won’t get very sick – or not sick at all. The lock downs are unnecessary for young healthy workers. Old people and those with immune system issues need to be protected. For the rest, good hand hygiene and simple surgical masks will help a great deal. Better surface cleaning helps too. That’s what’s working very well in Hong Kong.

  8. Solo un resfriado!

  9. The median age in Latin America and the Caribbean is 31, with only 8.44% of the population older than 65. These countries don’t send their elderly to live in the cesspools that are European and US/Canadian nursing homes, which have been a major if not the biggest source of COVID-19-related deaths in every hard-hit country. The median age in the USA is about 38.5 and 16% of the population is 65+, and Europe is even older (42.5 median age, 19.2% over 65). Not to mention Latam and the Caribbean have much lower rates of CVD, obesity, diabetes, etc. Not to mention these are mostly warm, tropical countries (supposing that study on the coronavirus’s half-life has some merit). Given all that, why would anyone expect the coronavirus to hit Latin America any more than any other respiratory diseases do? Not to mention all the diseases and problems that they still deal with like yellow fever, malaria, dengue, hunger, murder, etc.

    I would venture to say that if not for the mass hysteria being propagated by developed countries, most of Latin America and the Caribbean wouldn’t have even noticed the coronavirus.

    1. I have no doubt that you are correct. I suspect that in these countries that the elderly have not been able to live as long; for obvious reasons that they don’t have the wealth to extend life in the way we do. I bet the death rates in poor countries (from the disease) would be remarkably low.

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