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Latin America's two big coronavirus challenges

Latin America's two big coronavirus challenges

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many Latin American countries were struggling with low prices for their commodities exports, a Venezuelan refugee crisis, and a surge of street protests across the region.

Then came the worst global public health crisis in a hundred years.

So far, there are about half a million confirmed cases in Latin America and about 25,000 deaths, but spotty testing and reporting mean both figures are too low.


Now the region faces a twin challenge. First, dilapidated and highly unequal health-care systems risk becoming overwhelmed if the disease spreads widely. And in a region where 30 percent of people live in poverty and half the labor force toils in the informal economy, working from home is not a ready option for tens of millions of people. Cash-strapped governments are scrambling to help those left without work and food.

Second, the economic and social impacts will be severe. Shutdowns in China, Europe, and the US have cratered demand for Latin America's exports while also decimating remittances, a lifeline for countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Tourism, an economic engine for the region's island nations and Mexico, has vanished too. The IMF says the region's economy will shrink more than five percent this year.

The stakes are high. Over the past 20 years, 100 million Latin Americans rose out of poverty. Now, the UN warns, as many as 24 million of them could slide right back.

Here's a look at a few big stories in the region.

Brazil, the region's biggest economy, has handled the crisis the worst. President Jair Bolsonaro has rightly raised concerns about the economic toll of state-ordered lockdowns, but he's mocked the pandemic threat, clashed with governors over quarantines, and stoked protests against social distancing. Two health ministers have resigned in the past month. As Brazil grapples with the region's biggest outbreak and its steepest economic contraction since 1901, the epitaph for Bolsonaro's handling of the crisis could well be, "Some people died. So what? I'm sorry. What do you want me to do?"

Chile, which locked down early and has recently extended its measures in the capital region, recently made headlines for being the first country to introduce an "immunity passport" as part of a plan to get people back to work safely. Good idea, or not?

Colombia moved early to get tests and impose a nationwide lockdown, and it's now slowly reopening select regions. One big question: How will the crisis affect Colombia's ability to integrate the more than 1 million Venezuelan refugees still in the country, or to make progress on an already-stumbling peace process with the FARC? A snapshot: Colombia's poor are raising red flags on their houses to let the authorities know they need food.

Mexico's still-popular President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador dismissed early warnings about the virus because of his concern about a lockdown's effect on the poor. That hurt efforts to contain its spread, and though he has since declared a national emergency, there are big questions about the real death toll in Mexico City and other regions. As the economy faces a historic 6 percent collapse, will he still have the money he's promised to spend on infrastructure and social initiatives? He's beginning a phased re-opening of Mexico's economy this week.

Peru won early praise for swift lockdowns, but it now faces a mounting health crisis as workers who lost their jobs in Lima return to poorly-equipped rural villages, taking the virus with them.

Central America, already plagued by violence and hugely dependent on remittances, is in a tough spot, even if reported deaths are still fairly low. El Salvador's authoritarian-minded young president has triggered a constitutional crisis with some of the strictest lockdown measures in the region. Next door in Guatemala, villagers have violently rejected migrants trying to return home for fear they carry the virus.

Make way for the little 'Guay! Despite minimal forced lockdowns, the 3.4 million people of Uruguay broadly adopted social distancing measures on their own, and the country's well-developed public health system hasn't been strained. So far, the death rate has been about on par with New Zealand's.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, stretching for more than 2,000 miles, is home to the world's highest mountains. The mountain range is also home to the world's third-largest concentration of snow and ice, earning it the moniker the third pole; only the North and South Poles contain more. The glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are the main source of fresh water for around two billion people living in the region. However, by the end of this century, two-thirds of that snow and ice could be lost because of climate change. A network of data scientists and environmentalists around the world, and on the ground in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, are working to understand the extent of glacial melting in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, its effects and what can be done to minimize its impact. To read more visit Microsoft on the Issues.

When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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