Latin America among gaps, absences and disabilities

The UK has recently launched a general vaccination plan for the population against COVID-19. Germany has been preparing since November, which involves, among other things, consultation between the federal state and the sub-national states to make their own plan, scheduled to start in January, as efficient, rapid and comprehensive as possible. Many other countries, especially developed ones, are also organizing themselves to prepare for their exit from the pandemic. Those plans, however, are far from materializing in Latin America, which without having overcome the first wave of COVID-19 is beginning to be hit by the second.

What is the reason for this delay, a supposed Latin American indolence? The answer is basically political and institutional.

The management of the pandemic -which reached Latin America after Europe and Asia- and its eventual exit, highlight three endemic deficiencies in the region: leadership; quality of public policies; and, more generally, State capacity. In some cases, these shortcomings overlap. And in others, at least, they are mitigated.

Leadership shortfalls are directly related to the lack of attitude among heads of government

Leadership shortfalls are directly related to the lack of attitude among heads of government, as in Brazil and Chile. There, to the minimization of the severity of the pandemic was added an erratic conduct, both of the contingency actions and of the communication itself about those actions. This led to cacophony and discrediting of government action.

The second type of deficiency, that of the quality of public policies, is more structural, as is the case in Peru, Ecuador and, to a lesser extent, Argentina. In these cases, measures to contain the virus have been either poorly planned or poorly followed by local authorities and, as a result, by the population. This led to the fact that, despite the organization of quarantines or lockdowns, the authorities were unable to contain the spread of the virus or did so very late.

In the case of Argentina, the problem has been the extension of the quarantine. The country was one of the first to implement strict confinement and one of the longest to extend it, which seemed to keep the spread of the virus relatively low. However, as of August, five months after the confinement was decreed, the virus seemed out of control and there was an exponential increase in infections and deaths.

the governments of Chile and especially Brazil have been very effective in “doing nothing”.

Although it would seem that Chile and Brazil could be in this group, the truth is that in those cases we are rather facing an absence of public policy. However, it should be noted that the absence of public policy (or a “non-action”) is, in itself, a public policy. And in this case, the governments of Chile and especially Brazil have been very effective in “doing nothing”.

Finally, the third lack is of an institutional nature and has to do with the capacity of the states to implement public policies, enforce and respect the laws and/or maintain a certain order over the territory. The notion of “state capacity” offers analytical tools to identify the structural and chronic causes of mismanagement. In other words, it allows us to understand the origin of good or bad government.

The literature suggests that the capacities of Latin American governments are generally mediocre or low. This low capacity has a direct impact on how countries are preparing for the exit from the pandemic and how they are, or rather are not, planning for vaccination.

There are four countries that have high levels of state capacity: Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.

There are four countries that have high levels of state capacity: Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay. However, none of the four, which in terms of public management would be the “crême de la crême” of the region, has an exit or vaccination plan. But at least Uruguay and Costa Rica were able to contain the spread of the virus and had mortality levels almost as low as those in South Korea.

Once again, Brazil and particularly Chile, stand out for the worse. These two countries are usually presented as having the best trained public services and the strongest institutions in the region. But their leaders have managed to circumvent these attributes by repeatedly attacking other legislative and judicial branches in the case of Bolsonaro, and by manipulating official data in the case of Piñera. In this way, both leaders are responsible for the weakening of institutions.

Likewise, if Latin America does not remedy its erratic management of the pandemic (see the example of the United States or, to a lesser extent, Italy and Spain), reflected in its manifest inability to contain the spread of the virus and its lack of preparation of exit plans, the limitations of its governments will become more than evident.

In fact, the elaboration and implementation of public policies consists in the materialization of the State’s presence. In turn, the democratic pact implies, among other things, a vote of confidence from society so that the government can face this type of eventuality. However, Latin America is home to large “brown areas” – areas where the State is absent – where the State does not have the capacity to control the pandemic and provide social and health protection to its population. This omens critical moments in the post-pandemic era. If that era is ever to come.

*Translation from Spanish by Emmanuel Guerisoli

Photo of Eneas in / CC BY

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