From Mexico City to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Santiago, Chile, the coronavirus is taking root in the world’s most unequal region, where many of Latin America’s first cases arrived with members of the elite returning from vacations or work trips to Europe and the United States.
Many of the wealthy are already recovering, but experts warn that the virus could kill scores of the poorest people, who must work every day to feed their families, live in unsanitary conditions and lack proper medical care. Some countries are making payments to informal workers — maids, street sellers and others who have been told to stay home to reduce the spread of the virus, but the effort is patchwork and doesn’t apply to everyone who needs help.
“I stay home, I will lose all my goods. I have no way to save them,” said Marie-Ange Bouzi, who sells tomatoes and onions on the street of Haiti’s capital. “I am not going to spend money fighting corona. God is going to protect me.”
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, reported its first two cases of the virus on March 20. One was imported by one of its most successful artists, an R&B singer who had just returned from France, according to the director of health in Port-au-Prince.
Singer Roody Roodboy, who’s real name is Roody Pétuel Dauphin, quarantined himself when he got back to avoid infecting others and sent his entourage to be tested, manager Narcisse Fievre said. He said the singer had received death threats from people who accuse him of bringing the disease to Haiti, although there is no evidence Dauphin had infected anyone else.
For hundreds of thousands of Haitians who earn a few dollars a day selling goods on the street, quarantine like Dauphin’s would mean near-starvation.
’’People are not going stay home. How are they going to eat?” Bouzi said. “Haiti isn’t structured for that.”
The Haitian government has cut banking and government office hours, closed schools and broadcast radio messages asking people to stay home. But thousands in Port-au-Prince still crowded this week into street markets, buses and repurposed pickup trucks known as tap-taps.
In Chile, which has seen cases grow to more than 2500 since March 3, many coronavirus diagnoses have been in upper-middle-class neighborhoods, in people just back from Europe, particularly Italy.
Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has complained that wealthy residents of the Las Condes and Vitacura sections of Santiago, the capital, are routinely violating required quarantines after they tested positive or encountered someone who did.
Las Condes Mayor Joaquín Lavín says more than half the cases in the city are in Las Condes and Vitacura.
The health minister says he has personally called wealthy residents supposedly in quarantine and discovers they are defying the order.
“You hear honking and street noises, which tells me they’re fooling us and disrespecting the quarantine,” Mañalich said.
Mexican authorities say at least 17 of the country’s wealthiest people returned after being infected during a ski trip to Vail, Colorado.
The first person to die in Rio state was Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63-year-old who worked as a maid for a woman in Leblon, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brazil. The woman of the household was infected during a trip to Italy but Gonçalves’ family members said she wasn’t informed her boss was in isolation awaiting test results, according to Camila Ramos de Miranda, health secretary for the town of Miguel Pereira. Gonçalves, who had hypertension and diabetes, fell ill and died on March 17 in Miguel Pereira two hours north of the capital.
“I know we need to work, need our daily bread, but nothing is more important than the value of a life,” Miguel Pereira Mayor André Português said in a video posted on Facebook.
In Lima, Peru, the fallout from the pandemic is starkly different depending on class.
Nadia Muñoz watched her 8-year-old son, Luka, follow online lessons from his private Catholic school on a recent afternoon. The makeup artist and her family live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, where Lima’s 15-day quarantine hasn’t been too disruptive.
“We have a supermarket nearby, light, water, internet, a phone and cable TV,” Muñoz said as she recorded a makeup lesson to post on Instagram.
In a shack on a nearby hill, Alejandro de la Cruz, 86, his wife María Zoila, and his son Ramiro, who sold clothes on the street until the quarantine started this month, were cooking with charcoal. They have no running water, electricity, internet or phone service.
They live among security guards, cooks, drivers, tailors, shoemakers, car mechanics and construction workers who are unemployed during the lockdown.
While there are more poor people in other regions of the world, Latin America remains the region in which the greatest proportion of wealth is held by a small number of citizens.
“Latin America is the most unequal region in the entire world. We’re talking about class disparities that are unlike anywhere else on the planet,” said Geoff Ramsey, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Some Latin American governments were striving to help workers whose informal jobs provide them no access to the social safety net, including unemployment payments or severance packages.
Peru has announced a payment of $108 for the 2.7 million homes classified as poverty stricken. But the hillside shanty where de la Cruz and his unemployed neighbors are waiting out the quarantine aren’t poor enough to qualify.
“My son hasn’t worked for a week, there’s barely enough to buy a bit of food,″ Zoila said.
In Argentina, the center-left government approved a $151 payment in April for informal workers, who make up 35% of the nation’s economy. Argentina plans to make more payments soon.
Brazil’s right-wing government has no such plans. On Twitter last week, left-leaning politicians called for maids to receive their salaries while self-isolating, adding the hashtag #PaidQuarantineNow.
The lack of help worries Patricia Martins, who lives in Brazil’s largest favela, or slum, Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, which houses about 70,000 people in brick homes packed tightly together on steep slopes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Clean water is sporadic, sewage often runs in the streets and winding alleys and soaring staircases make it difficult for medical professionals to retrieve a sick person in an emergency.
“My concern is that if someone gets that sickness, this is going to be a focal point, like it’s a focal point for tuberculosis and for HIV,” said Martins, a 45-year-old cleaning woman.
“The person who’s a cleaner, the person who counts on that money to survive, to sustain their family — they’re going to bring in money from where?” she said of anti-virus measures. “If everything stops, it will end people’s lives! There will be nothing people can do to survive!”