Latin America is commonly defined as comprising those countries in the Americas that count Spanish or Portuguese as official languages. This includes much of South and Central America, Mexico in North America and certain islands in the Caribbean.

In addition to its impact on populations and health systems across the region, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have significant and widespread economic and political effects in Latin American countries.

Health impact

Statistics: cases, deaths, mortality rates and vaccinations

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has noted that as of early September 2021 there had been 43.3 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 1.4 million deaths attributable to the virus across Latin America and the Caribbean region. This represented 21% of cases and 32% of deaths worldwide.

As of 11 October 2021:

  • Five countries had counted more than 100,000 deaths: Brazil (600,829), Mexico (281,610), Peru (199,641), Colombia (126,585) and Argentina (115,458).
  • Peru had the highest recorded Covid-19 mortality rate (at 614.08 deaths per 100,000), the highest globally. In Latin America, this was followed by Brazil (284.69), Argentina (256.92), Colombia (251.46) and Paraguay (230.05).
  • Uruguay and Chile had fully vaccinated 75% of their populations, while Venezuela and Guatemala had fully vaccinated just under 22% and 17% respectively.

Table 1: Covid-19 deaths; mortality rates per 100,000; and vaccination rates for selected countries in Latin America as of 11 October 2021

Covid-19 deaths, mortality rates and vaccinations as of 11 October 2021
Country Deaths Deaths per 100,000 Fully vaccinated (percentage)
Brazil 600,829 284.69 47.05%
Mexico 281,610 220.74 38.02
Peru 199,641 614.08 39.15
Colombia 126,585 251.46 36.37
Argentina 115,458 256.92 52.99
Chile 37,554 198.15 75.01
Ecuador 32,836 189.0 57.43
Bolivia 18,789 163.2 30.10
Paraguay 16,206 230.05 28.36
Guatemala 13,986 84.23 16.80

Source: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, ‘Mortality analyses’ and ‘Understanding vaccination progress’, accessed 11 October 2021. See also: ‘Covid-19 data dashboard’, accessed 11 October 2021.

For comparison, the UK had recorded 138,101 deaths and a mortality rate of 206.63 deaths per 100,000 as of the same date according to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine data. In addition, UK Government data indicated that 85.5% of the population aged 12 and over had received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and 78.5% had received a second dose.

Current situation

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), which serves as the specialized international health for the Americas and the World Health Organisation’s regional office in the region, has reported a mixed picture about the pandemic’s progress in Latin American countries. Speaking on 11 August 2021, PAHO director Carissa Etienne said cases and deaths had continued to rise in Mexico, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico. However, cases and/or deaths were declining in Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Speaking on 30 September 2021, Dr Etienne noted Covid-19 had “killed over 2.4 million people and led 22 million into poverty” across the Americas as a whole.

The PAHO reports that all countries and territories in the Americas have now started vaccination programmes. But as the data above indicate, the rollout of vaccine doses has varied considerably between Latin American countries. While some nations have fully vaccinated three quarters of their populations, others have reported vaccination rates of less than a quarter. The PAHO maintains a Covid-19 vaccine tracker tool for the Americas alongside a separate Covax delivery tracker tool.

Overall, Dr Etienne indicated at the beginning of September that 25% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean had been fully vaccinated. She said:

More than a third of countries in our region have yet to vaccinate 20% of their populations. And in some places, coverage is much lower […] Unfortunately, countries with high coverage are the exception in our region.

The CRS has noted concern that widespread vaccine access in some countries “could be delayed until 2022 or 2023, making populations vulnerable to new waves and more transmittable variants of the virus”.

Vaccine supplies for the region have come from a variety of sources. These include agreements with pharmaceutical companies, supplies received via the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) facility, or purchases or donations from China and Russia. In addition, Cuba has developed vaccines and as of 11 October had fully vaccinated 52% of its population.

In June, Dr Etienne urged G7 countries to prioritise vaccine doses for “countries at greatest risk, especially those in Latin America that have not yet had access to enough vaccines to even protect the most vulnerable”. The World Trade Organisation has also called for diversification in vaccine manufacturing capacity, noting in May that Latin America has only about 2% of production capacity.

Economic and political impact

The World Bank has described Latin America as the region hardest hit by the pandemic. It said the sharp contraction in growth accompanying the health crisis had had an “enormous” social and economic impact, particularly having come “after several years of sluggish economic growth and limited progress in social indicators”.

In April 2021, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated the Latin America and Caribbean region had experienced a 7% economic contraction in 2020. IMF commentary published at the same time noted this was the sharpest in the world, “by far exceeding the global slowdown of 3.3%”. The extent of contractions differed both within and between countries, with some nations in South America estimated to have experienced contractions of over 10%.

The IMF also noted that the outlook for economic recovery in the region was “subject to an extraordinary degree of uncertainty”, given it would be dependent on factors including vaccination rollouts and the degree of policy support in place. While some countries, such as Chile, were expected to reach pre-pandemic levels of GDP in 2021, other countries were not expected to recover until 2022, 2023 or 2024.

In March 2021, a report from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated that 22 million people had moved into poverty in Latin America in 2020—giving an overall poverty rate of 33.7% in the region. This was an increase on the estimate of 30.5% for 2019.

The CRS has noted that the pandemic has exacerbated a range of economic and political tensions in several countries in the region. It observed this had contributed to an increase in protests since late 2020. It added:

In 2021, pandemic-related protests have erupted in several countries, notably in Colombia, Cuba, and Brazil. Human rights groups and other observers also have expressed concern about leaders taking advantage of the pandemic to advance their own agendas and restrict freedom of expression.

UK Government policy

In April 2021, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), summarised the Government’s overall approach to relations with the region. He told the House of Lords:

My Lords, Latin America is an increasingly important partner for the UK’s global ambitions. It is one of the regions most aligned to UK values. Our relationships are based on democratic values, sustainable, inclusive and resilient economic growth, and the championing of free trade. We also have strong people-to-people links and effective co-operation on innovation, health and climate change.

In June, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Wendy Morton provided further information after being asked what steps the Government was taking to support countries in the Americas tackling high rates of Covid-19 infections. She replied:

As one of the largest donors to the international response to Covid-19, the UK has so far pledged up to £1.3 billion of UK aid to address the impacts of the pandemic, and to help end the pandemic as quickly as possible. With our strong support, Covax has started to make progress on delivering vaccines across the world and has delivered 77 million doses to 127 different economies to date. We believe that supporting Covax is the best way to exit the acute phase of the pandemic.

In the Americas, the UK has co-hosted a series of regional workshops on Covax and access to vaccines, bringing together government ministers and experts with the multilateral health system and development banks. Our embassies have regular engagement with their host countries, sharing lessons learned from the UK’s experience. Much of our engagement in the coming months will be around economic recovery and building back greener and better. We work closely with partners throughout Latin America, including through high-level partnerships for sustainable growth with Mexico and Colombia.

On 11 October 2021, the Government reduced the number of countries and territories on the ‘red list’ of destinations from which most arrivals in England must take tests and quarantine in a managed hotel. The list was reduced to seven destinations, all of which are in Latin America or the Caribbean: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

What next?

Baroness Coussins (Crossbench) has tabled a question for short debate in the House of Lords to ask the Government “what assessment they have made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America”. The debate is expected to take place on 20 October 2021.

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Image by Isabela Kronemberger from Unsplash.