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Viral Intelligence

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

With the peak of the health crisis in the rearview mirror in most regions, it is becoming possible to start to reflect upon what has just happened. Needless to say, the pandemic has been generally mishandled, and that is a euphemism. The inability to devise a globally coordinated health response to the viral attack has been staggering. In its place, a wide range of incoherent, off-the-cuff policies popped up across nations, including neighboring ones, and even within countries despite supposedly relying on the same scientific evidence. How could the world make such a fool of itself?

Because, in their search for maximum damage, viruses are not only powerful, but also smart, as noted by French philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj in an exceptional video-conference.* Take rabies, for example. The symptoms triggered by the virus include aggressiveness, the avoidance of water and the need to roam. They are cleverly engineered to allow for the effective transmission of the disease: aggressiveness creates an urge to bite, the avoidance of water drives up the virus concentration in saliva, and the impulse to move helps spread the disease.

In that respect, COVID-19 is particularly sophisticated: it initially tricked human beings into compassion and affection to rapidly achieve scale; it can be asymptomatic, especially for the highly mobile young generations, so that it can operate in stealth mode and spread globally, using modern modes of transportation; and it makes its victims cough, which is highly contagious to the immediate surroundings. But the truly destructive force of COVID-19 is that it has required that a number of maddening trade-offs be addressed by collectivities in record time: Protection or immunity? Right to life or freedom? Health or economy? Heroism or utilitarianism? Old or young generation? Police enforcement or friendly advice? Centralized ‘emergency powers’ or decentralized response? The number of trade-offs, their multi-dimensionality and their inherent complexity explain why no single policy response could be defined. Overwhelmed, most countries seized without managing to engage into a democratic debate. This is true for Europe, the United States and Latin America, which, with its 700 million inhabitants, is at the epicenter of the pandemic and deserves some attention.

Talking about the diversity of responses to COVID-19, Mexico and Brazil stand out as countries with weak lockdowns in place, even though Brazilian state-level governments have imposed their own, typically tighter version. Most other Latin American countries have imposed relatively stringent lockdown measures, particularly Argentina, Peru, Chile and Columbia, albeit with varying degree of success when considering casualties. Generally, countries with significant economic inequality, large slums or relatively weak governments found it hard to implement quarantines and/or to effectively enforce them given the vital need of underprivileged ‘informal workers’ to continue to work despite the health risks. Besides, at the most basic level, how can a population be locked down when there is no sanitation or running water? Looking at the Covid-19 deaths by capita stats, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia (in that order) are among the top 25 worst-impacted nations, whilst Argentina and Uruguay are doing relatively well.

COVID-19 is evidently increasing economic and fiscal stresses across all of Latin America, impacting a region which has grown at the same snail’s pace as that of the European Union over the last five year despite its stronger potential. Almost all major economies are likely to experience a sharp recession this year, in particular Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and Ecuador – with Peru expected to register a double-digit decline this year according to the World Bank's June forecasts. Overall, the situation is dire, with Latin America set to experience a 5% GDP drop over 2020-21 according to the same source, making it the worst performing region over the two-year period on a par with the Euro Area and significantly underperforming other developing economies (+2% GDP over the two-year period), courtesy, inter alia, of a large dependence on commodities export. Latin America may suffer serious damages, with material implications for companies operating in the region when considering rising political and economic risk factors. Yet, as the band Calle 13 says it in its hopeful song ‘Latinoamerica’, ‘Soy América Latina, un pueblo sin piernas, pero que camina.’**

Few countries have covered themselves with glory during this crisis. Worse, it is unclear to me that the response of any nation or continent to a future outbreak would be much more thoughtful. But there are attenuating circumstances: COVID-19 is a devilishly smart enemy which has hit at the core of mankind’s fragile compromises. It is now forcing it to revisit all notions of fairness and equality. If there is anything positive which may come out of this mess, that will be it.

* In French only

** ‘I am Latin America, a people without legs who nevertheless walks’

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