In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020, with developing countries overall seeing their incomes fall for the first time in 60 years. The United Nations predicts that the pandemic recession could plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day. The UN has forecast that Africa could have 30 million more people in poverty. A study by the International Growth Centre spoke of “staggering” implications with 9.1 percent of the population descending into extreme poverty as savings are drained, with two-thirds of this due to lockdown. The loss of remittances has cost developing economies billions more income.
Latin America had seen its poverty rate drop from 45 to 30 percent over the past two decades, but now nearly 45 million, according to the UN, are being plunged into destitution as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In Mexico alone, COVID-19 has caused at least 16 million more people to fall into extreme poverty, according to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Although the pandemic started in China and spread first to wealthier countries, developing countries are now experiencing notably higher rates of new infections and fatalities. The world’s highest death rates from COVID-19, outside of Belgium, are in such countries as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Iran, and Mexico. Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, Director of the program on Displacement and Migration at the Center for Global Policy and an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College, predicts the possibility of “devastating death tolls” throughout the developing world. Africa alone, suggests the UN, could see between 300,000 and 3.3 million deaths during the pandemic. India’s reported cases have doubled from around three to six million over the past month, as it has struggled to keep its population socially distant.
During the southern hemisphere’s winter months, South Africa, with a population of 57.8 million, had over 600,000 reported COVID-19 cases, making it the fifth hardest hit country in the world, behind Russia, Brazil, India, and the United States. According to the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the official death toll is severely under-reported.
“Latin America,” notes a recent article in Foreign Policy, has replaced Europe and America as “the part of the world most affected by COVID-19, both by confirmed cases and by deaths.” The region now accounts for five of the world’s top 10 countries with the most fatalities.Brazil, the continent’s most populous country, has suffered greatly and seen at least five million infections. That is by far the most in Latin America and the world’s second largest number of deaths after the United States. Its largest city, Sao Paulo, with 12 million inhabitants, has suffered more fatalities than Germany, and its hospitals have teetered on the edge of collapse. Attempts to open up the economy have been reversed recently in that critical city.
Until the pandemic, Africa seemed to be heading towards greater liberalization and integration into the world trade system. This process now seems to have shifted into reverse. In Angola, Kenya, and Uganda, people have been killed by security officials enforcing lockdowns and others have been beaten and shot. The pandemic could be the last straw for South Africa. Once a source of hope and aspiration, some South Africans now fear that the country will end up as another authoritarian “failed state.”
But the greatest dangers to democratic rule may emerge in Latin America. Mexico and Brazil, for example, ruled respectively by populists from the Left and Right, have both proved ineffective at controling the pandemic. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has consolidated power, changed the Mexican constitution to allow the military to patrol the streets and detain civilians, and is widely considered the most dictatorial president there in 30 years, even seeking to break tradition so he could prosecute previous leaders. He has also attacked reporters in Trumpian fashion.
Similar patterns have emerged in Brazil, where right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has, like Obrador, downplayed the crisis. Instead, he has sought to consolidate power and push his own ideology, which emphasizes conservative social values and economic growth. Like his counterparts in South Africa, he has approached the crisis in a militaristic fashion, even appointing Eduardo Pazuello, an army general with no medical experience, as the interim minister of health.