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LATIN AMERICA | 20-09-2020 21:57

Latin America's cities bustle like Covid is gone – but it’s not

In Latin America’s big cities, as in other places around the globe, it almost feels like the virus never happened.

Rush hour is back with a vengeance in Mexico City, diners have returned to restaurants in Bogotá and joggers have flocked to Buenos Aires’ parks. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, crowds have packed bars, beaches and even the sprawling fake lawn beneath Alphabet Inc’s regional headquarters.

In Latin America’s big cities, as in other places around the globe, it almost feels like the virus never happened. But it’s especially noteworthy because the region, with eight percent of the world’s population, accounts for a third of infections and fatalities. Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina are all in the top 10 worst-hit countries in the world.

So there is both greater thirst and greater risk for a return to “normality” in a region not known for either good government or public compliance. Health officials say quarantines are the best way to stop the virus but are no longer viable over the long term and so societies must do their best to manage the illness.

So even as the virus spreads deeper in Argentina and Brazil, data show the fierce attempt to move past the pandemic’s restrictions.

Mexico City traffic, which fell to around 14 percent of normal in mid-April, is up to 69 percent of a March 2 baseline. In São Paulo, the region’s second-largest city, rush hours are returning. Before the pandemic, there were 50 such hours per week. In April, that number plunged to 11. It is now around 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In and around Santiago, where almost 40 percent of Chile’s population live, mobility trackers show movement is just 13 percent below pre-quarantine levels, according to a report from Universidad del Desarrollo. Google data show mobility in restaurants, shopping centres and movie theatres down four percent since January in Rio de Janeiro (in Hong Kong, the drop is 14 percent). When it comes to workplace mobility, numbers are still down 42 percent in Bogotá and Mexico City, similar to New York and not far from London.

Helicopters and planes that were absent from the skies are also back: Airline Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA is expanding its daily fights to 300 this month – or about half of the pre-pandemic routes – from 50 in late March.

The need to “move on” may be partly because it is a region that has lived through so much – defaults, political turmoil, military coups and hyperinflation. The arrival of the pandemic was, in some sense, just one more problem. In the past month alone, Argentina increased its currency controls after another debt restructuring, violent protests broke out in Colombia over police brutality and Peru’s president faced impeachment proceedings.

Moreover, enforcement of rules is often lax – in São Paulo face masks are mandatory, though there’s little consequence for being out without one. The high percentage of people living in poverty and limited government aid also mean that many didn’t have a choice not to work.

“Latin Americans are very individualist, very different from what you see in Asia, where you have a strong collective sense,” said Paulo Feldmann, an economics professor at University of São Paulo. “You also have weak links with authorities – which only worsens when you get leaders giving diverging comments, as you had in the pandemic.”

Movement remains more restricted in Buenos Aires, which is still at least 40% below average in parks, workplaces and retail and recreation spaces.

The impact of the virus on the region has been harsh almost no matter what the official policy was. Some countries -- for example, Peru -- locked down early and with great force, yet were still hit hard.

Argentina and Chile were also aggressive in their lockdowns but ended up seeing cases increase anyway as residents broke quarantine to look for work and economies eventually started reopening. Cases in Buenos Aires continued to rise even as the government backed away from a reopening and returned to strict measures that only allowed essential services to open. Infections kept growing in the city’s metro area and into the rest of the country.

In other parts of the region, lockdowns faced backlashes from the start. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador argued against social-distancing, saying the economic fallout in the impoverished nations would be far worse than the health toll. Bolsonaro, who got sick himself, often dismissed the virus and encouraged people to work and mingle.

Both countries suffered terribly. Brazil has reported 4.45 million cases and almost 135,000 deaths, and Mexico is in second with some 72,000 deaths, but not by total infections (the nation’s government has resisted wide-scale testing, with the coronavirus czar saying in late May it’d be a waste of time and resources.)

Traffic jams

Though numbers remain high, the pace of infections has slowed across most of the region. After a month of more than 300,000 new cases a week, Brazil saw its numbers fall to 265,000, then to below 200,000. Weekly deaths have declined to 5,000, the lowest since June. Colombia reported 190 deaths on September 13, falling below the 200 mark for the first time since July 20.

In the first few days of September, Oxford Economics’s Latin America Recovery Tracker showed its largest gain since early April. Brazil’s tracker is just 3.9 percent below pre-pandemic levels, followed by Mexico (-16.4 percent), Colombia (-20.8 percent) and Chile (-29 percent). Peru and Argentina are the laggards, still more than 30 percent below.

Health officials remain worried.

“Of course it’s understandable that we’re gradually reopening, but we have to be careful, and between packed beaches and stores, that’s not what we are seeing,” said Simone Nouer, the coordinator of the infectious disease graduate course at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

And João Paulo Souza, a professor at University of São Paulo’s medical school, added that the risk is far from over. “When we face a classic epidemic, we see a quick rise, plateau and then – when you get to herd immunity – a quick decline,” he said. “But in our case, we have a long plateau without herd immunity, which means a persistent crisis.”

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by Julia Leite, Murilo Fagundes & Caroline Aragaki, Bloomberg

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