“It will not be easy, and we know we will be asking people to adapt to an extraordinary situation that is impacting everything in their lives. But let me emphasize: this pandemic is serious, and we need to do everything in our power to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our people.” - Carissa F. Etienne, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director


1 April 2020 — With coronavirus transmission on the rise in most Latin American countries, there is a small window of opportunity for Governments to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the impact on health systems and save lives, the United Nations’ specialized health agency in the region has warned, calling for urgent action.

In a media briefing on 31 March, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne urged immediate action to prepare hospitals and health facilities for what is coming: an influx of COVID-19 patients that will need hospital space, beds, health professionals and medical equipment. “This virus has not and will not be stopped by borders drawn on maps,” said Ms. Etienne.

PAHO, the specialized health agency for the Americas that also serves as the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO), is working with Governments to protect their health personnel, including by providing training on how to avoid infections and access adequate supplies of protective equipment. It is vital that countries decide what social distancing measures need to be implemented and for how long.

These are the only way to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by too many sick people in too short a time. Based on the experience of countries in other regions, Ms. Etienne highlighted that “it seems prudent to plan for the implementation of measures for, at least, two to three months.”

“It will not be easy, and we know we will be asking people to adapt to an extraordinary situation that is impacting everything in their lives. But let me emphasize: this pandemic is serious, and we need to do everything in our power to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our people,” said Ms. Etienne.

A map of Latin America with COVID-19 data.

The PAHO Director highlighted the solidarity of the region and the need to continue sharing resources, expertise and joint decisions to accelerate access to health services, research and innovation. She also emphasized that PAHO will continue to facilitate exchange between countries, and to work intensively with Member States, particularly those with the weakest health systems, to strengthen surveillance and early detection of cases and on ensuring health service preparedness.

“Solidarity in our region has never had deeper meaning than it does today,” she said. “The only way out of this situation will be if everyone does his/her part, while supporting others.”

As of 31 March, according to daily updates from WHO, 4,256 confirmed cases were reported in Brazil, 2,449 in Chile, 1,962 in Ecuador, 993 in Mexico, 989 in Panama, 901 in the Dominican Republic, 852 in Peru, 820 in Argentina, 702 in Colombia and 301 in Costa Rica.

Economic Impacts through 5 Channels

In an op-ed published on 31 March, Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), said that just a few months ago, and after ending 2019 with poor regional growth of just 0.1 per cent, ECLAC estimated that 2020 would witness a modest rebound and growth rate would reach 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Now, given the impacts of COVID-19, a conservative estimate shows that this region will record negative growth of -1.8 per cent this year.

Two women and two men stand facing the camera as they flank stacked up boxes with the label "PAHO".

Latin America and the Caribbean will be impacted via five main external channels: the decline of economic activity in principal trading partners, especially China; the fall in prices for commodities; the interruption of global and regional value chains; the steep drop in demand for tourism services, which primarily affects the Caribbean; and an increase in risk aversion and the worsening of global financial conditions and capital outflows from the region, with the consequent devaluation of our currencies.

The effects of this crisis on our main trading partners portend a decline in the value of our region’s exports that could reach a magnitude of -10.7 per cent. The the number of poor people would rise from 186 million currently to 220 million in 2020, and the number of those living in extreme poverty would rise from 67.5 million to 90.8 million.

UN Country Teams

United Nations country teams are rushing to step-up their support for Governments, as strengthening the capacity of healthcare services in each country in the region will be crucial in the weeks ahead.

In Bolivia, the United Nations’ support is focused on technical training for the public health sector, the purchase of equipment and supplies, and dissemination of information to the public on prevention and care measures. The UN team and the Government set up a Strategic Coordination Situation Room, which works around the clock to collect and analyze data for effective response. The Humanitarian Country Team, with more than 30 cooperation and civil society organizations is led by the Resident Coordinator to boost shelter, food security, education, protection, communication, in support of the Government’s plan.

In Guatemala, the United Nations, led by PAHO/WHO, has supported the Government since mid-January to prepare and address immediate health needs as well as potential social and economic impacts. PAHO has led the technical assistance on systematic collection, analysis and dissemination of health data for the planning, implementation and evaluation of public health programmes, also focusing on containment measures. PAHO has also provided COVID-19 detection samples. A key area of the UN team’s support is also to prevent and address violence against women and girls, which is crucial at a moment when people are asked to stay at home, given that Central America has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, with violence occurring mostly at home, by an intimate partner.

An empty city street with a Police car in view at an intersection.

In Brazil, the United Nations Global Compact, which unites over 10,400 companies globally in 166 countries, is collecting information on measures that companies are taking to fight the pandemic and on voluntary initiatives to support the global response to the COVID-19 crisis. The local subsidiary of Anheuser Busch InBev, AMBEV has geared its beer breweries to producing half a million alcohol-based sanitizer bottles to be donated to public hospitals. The Global Compact is also preparing guidelines for chief executives with recommendations and suggestions of how deal with the crisis internally and how to support the local response to COVID-19. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has procured a range of personal protective equipment to be used by health professionals, including coverall suits, goggles, gloves and face shields.

In Argentina, the UN team is supporting the government’s response in areas such as health, child protection, prevention of violence against women and food provision. PAHO/WHO is supporting health aspects to ensure containment and mitigation measures, including guidance and support on surveillance measures, laboratory diagnosis, infection control, risk communication, health system preparedness and measures to support social distancing and at points of entry. UNOPS is supporting with the urgent procurement of eight fully equipped emergency modular hospitals to expand the health system response with 560 extra inpatient therapy beds. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting community kitchens and care centres, providing food and social protection support to approximately 200,000 vulnerable people.

First responders are walking in a town's dirt streets and talking to local residents.

In Peru, in addition to the immediate health needs, UN entities are working with the government to minimize social and economic impacts of the outbreak. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been working with the Ministry of Work and Employment to protect workers from COVID-19 – also with measures to protect their rights. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are working with the Ministry of Education on safety in schools and preparations for homeschooling needs.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are calling attention to the challenges facing refugees and migrants from Venezuela. “At a time when the world’s attention is focused on COVID-19, and as Governments and populations, particularly health workers, heroically come together to combat this virus, we should not lose sight of the needs of the millions of Venezuelan refugees and migrants,” said Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM Special Representative for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.

In Colombia, an armed group has announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire starting 1 April. United Nations Secretary-General welcomed the announcement by the National Liberation Army (ELN) of the measure intended to facilitate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is dispatching a first batch of equipment to more than 40 countries around the world to enable them to use a nuclear-derived technique to rapidly detect the coronavirus. Dozens of laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean will receive diagnostic machines and kits, reagents and laboratory consumables to speed up national testing.