The coronavirus pandemic in South America

Information regarding the situation in South America, the coronavirus pandemic world epicenter

On May 22, the World Health Organization declared South America the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. As of June 15, the region has reported 1,426,387 cases and 60,484 deaths. Brazil is the second most COVID-19 plagued country in the world, right after the USA, with 867,882 total cases, as it overtook the UK in deaths (43,389) on June 13.

The situation in South America is considered to be critical, while at the same time inadequate testing in populations reveals that official numbers are not telling the whole story. Unfortunately, an improvement is far from reach as the health care systems around the continent are incapable of handling the massive cases. On top of this, the economic difficulties the countries are facing prevent them to pursue foreign aid in combating the pandemic.

How the situation unfolded

The first coronavirus case in South America, or the patient zero as it is called, was a man traveling to Sao Paulo, Brazil from Italy, where the pandemic was already surging, on February 26. In Ecuador, the first patient recorded also in February has traveled from Spain. At the early stages of the pandemic in the continent, COVID-19 was perceived as a disease that affects only the wealthy people with the ability to travel.

As a matter of fact though, the levels of the novel coronavirus infectivity were high and the virus spread fast. From early March to early April, the reported cases have risen from about 20,000 to 80,000 in South America. Every country by April has reported at least one coronavirus case. The first reported death was confirmed in Argentina on March 7. Unrecorded deaths due to lack of medical capacities were also noted among the poorest nations.

Economic trouble started to arise relatively early during the course of the pandemic. The social distancing measures imposed by the South American governments, as it already happened in the rest of the world, halted economic activities and damaged national economies. Despite this, the lowest classes continue to work wherever was possible. They could not afford to stay home and risked their health. 

When Europe was discussing ways of restoring normal life in late May, as the curb of infections was stopping, the World Health Organization was declaring South America the new epicenter of the pandemic.


For the time being, South America has 594,561 of the active 3,441,056 coronavirus cases worldwide. Brazil has 370,925, almost one-third of them, constituting the heart of the pandemic. Until now, 43,389 people have been died in Brazil due to COVID-19. From April until early May, the cases have risen from 6,000 to 90,000, while from May until now they have grown nine times bigger.  

All these worrying statistics are depicting a harsh image upon the country’s response in combating the virus spread. The federal government was reluctant to impose social distancing measures, as the impact on the economy was being perceived as a priority. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, has been continuously downplaying the significance of the COVID-19 disease, putting the weights of responsibilities into the local governors, many of which ignored his orders and imposed lockdowns. 

Critics of Jair Bolsonaro have blamed the president for apathy towards the thousands of deaths as he focused on political competition among his government and on his judicial cases. The supreme court of Brazil is examining allegations on Bolsonaro’s interference with federal police, as well as on disinformation by its supporters. Bolsonaro’s course during his presidency is often compared with Donald Trump’s US presidency regarding their similar public image and controversial choices.

Peru and Chile

As of June 15, Peru has recorded 229,736 coronavirus cases and 6,688 deaths, while Chile 174,293 cases and 3,323 deaths. Peru and Chile are second and third respectively, right after Brazil, in total coronavirus cases officially reported.

The situation of Peru can be explained largely due to the economic inequalities among its people. While the government imposed national lockdown early (15 May), the poor could not abide by authorities completely.  

The large markets of Peru, which, as it is reasonable, they are often crowded, provide lowest-income families with food on a daily basis. Social distancing could not be fully implemented when the necessities for basic needs are so intense. At the same time, the health system of the western South American country has tremendous shortages, when the intensive care units are no more than 1,000 in a 32 million population. 

In Chile, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the country amidst civil protests against inequality that started in October 2019 and continued until March 2020. The government imposed social distancing measures early, but the consequences in the national economy were immense, as it downturned heavily and unemployment levels grew. Chilean economic turmoil triggered a food shortage in May. Civil protests re-emerged in Santiago as fears of an unprecedented hunger crisis were lurking. 

The coronavirus pandemic in South America is admittedly most affecting the poor, both in health and economy sectors. On the other hand, governments’ willingness to combat COVID-19 across the continent, whether it exists or not, is overpowered by the depressing economic realities.  

Coronavirus cases comparison in Latin America © Statista 2020