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From the COVID-19 Epicentre: Top-down and bottom-up approaches to managing the crisis in Latin American cities

31 July 2020

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Hayley Henderson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy. Her research is focused on collaboration in urban policymaking and governance, as well as the kinds of alliances created outside of government and their actions that sway public policy, from feminist social movements to coordinated business lobbying.

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Latin America is the current epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, where it is spreading fastest in the region’s cities following a pattern of contagion that is anything but arbitrary. Disturbing images across international press depict the unfolding crisis, from disinfection campaigns in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to stockpiles of cardboard coffins in Guayaquil, Ecuador. By July 2020, a quarter of global cases could be found in the region, where some urban centres have been worse hit than others. Two factors underpin these regional variations: levels of inequality and the way the crisis is being handled bottom-up and top-down.

Across the region’s largest cities, the first cases appeared by early March, in neighbourhoods of high socio-economic advantage, brought in by people returning from holidays abroad. It was not until May that exponential rates of infection were recorded, reflecting the spread of coronavirus across cities and into their poorest neighbourhoods. To make ends meet, many of the urban poor have not been able to manage risk in the way those better off do: they travel long distances to advantaged neighbourhoods to work in the informal economy, for example cleaning houses, fixing electrical problems or selling vegetables. By July 2020, rates of infection were also increasing in many middle-class neighbourhoods (though in these areas self-isolation is a more realistic prospect and medical care is also more readily available).

Inequality created ideal conditions for COVID-19 to spread and it disproportionally affects inhabitants of informal settlements across the region’s largest cities. In addition to precarious employment, some of the living conditions that can increase vulnerability in informal settlements where one fifth of the Latin American population lives include overcrowding, malnutrition, unreliable sewer systems, limited access to potable water, overwhelmed health facilities, cost prohibitive health services and indoor air pollution from cooking (e.g. with wood, kerosene). In such contexts COVID-19 is far from a levelling force; it is the latest crisis to reveal old and hard truths about Latin America’s social and economic geography.

However, COVID-19 has not spread unabated in all Latin American cities; the way the crisis has been governed and the preparedness of services have greatly impacted outcomes between cities and countries across the region. Many Latin American experiences demonstrate the aggravating impact of inconsistent communications by authorities and political leaders, weak public health systems, liberalised employment and the lack of economic support for disadvantaged groups. As mortality rates in Brazil, Chile and Peru reach over 35 deaths per 100,000 people, nowhere has it been made clearer how a hollowed-out public health system leaves behind vulnerable people. This figure is much lower in other parts of the region, for example in Paraguay (0.3/100,000) and Argentina (4/100,000), where aspects of government-led responses, in particular strict lockdowns upheld by citizens, have been recognised as world-leading (e.g. in June, 2020 Time included Argentina’s response in the 11 Best Global Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic).

I am currently based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of the region’s megacities that has fared relatively well in terms of health outcomes. The world’s longest lockdown started here on March 20th and continued while writing this article in mid-July 2020. Coordination between all three levels of government in developing a strategy to manage the crisis and shared communications has produced clear regulations to follow, for example for households to source essentials only in their local neighbourhood to promote containment (possible because the 15-minute city is a reality in most parts of this city) and for businesses to apply for exemptions to operate or to access economic support. The coordinated and clear response has in turn bolstered public trust and compliance in respecting the restrictions introduced, for example for individuals to wear masks in public or the prohibition of rental evictions. While the debate continues about the long-term effectiveness of the very strict and long lockdown, it has served to control the virus spreading to some extent and undoubtedly has allowed much needed time to ready the health system, for example for more respirators to be locally manufactured and distributed.

However, it is not just top-down approaches but also the vital bottom-up work of social organisations in Buenos Aires and across Latin American cities that makes a difference to local outcomes, especially in informal settlements given the absence of public services available. Often run voluntarily and by women, they cook meals for those in need, make masks, source medications, disseminate public information and fix broken houses. Many of their actions are also directed toward the State to drive anti-neoliberal change and demonstrate a better urban future centred on people’s real lives and desires with an ethic of care. For example, across the region feminist social movements and politics are rapidly dismantling patriarchal perspectives about modern cities and demonstrating formidable solidarity in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Looking forward to the post-pandemic city there are pressing issues and valuable lessons to be observed in Latin America. First, there is a need to redress debilitating inequality. Poverty has been built into the way cities are developed and this is being denaturalised. Second, the prioritisation of public health outcomes through coordinated and strong State-led action has saved lives in some cities like Buenos Aires. Bipartisan leadership and collaboration between levels of government offers promise in dealing with pressing metropolitan challenges in the future. Thirdly, because of the ubiquitous albeit unequal way coronavirus has affected people across cities, there is potential for a post-pandemic future that focuses on collective wellbeing. In this regard, many Latin American social organisations, and the networks between them offer hope and direction for the challenge of recovery. Not only do they provide vital support in crisis management, they have the potential to play a democratising role in shaping politics and State responses to redress inequality over the long term.

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Updated:  8 August 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team