Latin America:
Gruesome Toll of Imperialist Domination and Coronavirus-Denialism



The COVID-19 virus came late to Latin America, with the first case confirmed on March 5. But in the last two months it has spread like a roaring fire among the region’s 700 million people. It has fed on the desperate poverty, debt, and dysfunctional health care systems that are the result of 500 years of pillaging by European colonialism and ongoing domination by imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism. And it has been given a clear path by the “coronavirus-denialism” of several major bourgeois political leaders, “leaders” who first made a joke out of the disease, then resisted any measures to contain or mitigate it, and then systematically lied about the death toll, even as hospitals were overwhelmed and corpses piled up in morgues.

All of these forces working together have turned hospitals, morgues, neighborhoods, and even whole cities into literal hellscapes that make Stephen King’s creations seem like children’s stories.

Deep Poverty, Debt, Limited Health Care

Defenders of imperialism like to brag about the “modernization” of Latin America over the last few decades, and point to the growth of a modest middle class, modern factories, and prosperous districts in major cities. Brazil in particular is touted as being “on the road” to being a “developed” nation.

But beneath the gloss is the reality that the wealth generated in these countries is done on the basis of brutal and grinding exploitation of workers in mines, mills, and factories, peasants on small farms and big plantations, people trying to escape the desperate poverty that ensnares hundreds of millions. And most of that wealth is siphoned off to the imperialist countries and investment banks that own or are heavily invested in much of the productive capacity, leaving a thin veneer of “prosperity” behind.

In Brazil, “... almost half the population do not have access to sanitation, and one quarter live in poverty. ... in the poorest favelas there can be 8-10 people sharing a 2-room house, with no prospect of social distancing.” Preventable or treatable diseases—dengue fever, yellow fever, malaria—still stalk and weaken millions. In Latin America as a whole, 45 percent of people work in the “informal economy” with no benefits or security, and public spending on health care is less than one fourth per capita what it is in many European countries.1

And on top of this, Latin American governments have to evaluate how to handle a public health crisis with an eye toward the imperialist governments and investors who exert enormous financial leverage. So there is tremendous pressure to keep the economy rolling, keep those factories churning out products that fit into the global supply chain, keep those taxes coming in so they can pay off loans.

Those governments that did not bow to this pressure have done much better with the pandemic but are being made to pay a terrible price. According to NPR, in late March, the Argentinian government recognized that “their underfunded health system would be quickly overwhelmed” and that “we could have 250,000 deaths if we do nothing.” So on March 20, they imposed an eight-week nationwide shutdown and travel ban. As a result, Argentina, with 45 million people, has had only 363 confirmed COVID-19 deaths so far.

But now the imperialist vultures are bearing down on them—the shutdown made it impossible for Argentina to meet its upcoming debt payment of $500 million, meaning they could go into default. According to the New York Times, “International creditors have scoffed” at Argentina’s plan to restructure the debt to take into account the impact of the pandemic, so default is a near-certainty. They want their money and they want it now!

That experience sheds some light on the “epidemic” of coronavirus-denialism among many other Latin American leaders who feared the economic disruption that comes with seriously confronting the pandemic more than the mass death the virus would bring. The fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, mimicked his friend Donald Trump in claiming that COVID was just “a little flu” and that “Brazilians don’t catch anything ... they already have the antibodies to keep it from spreading.” Bolsonaro clashed sharply with state governors over shelter-in-place orders.

And likewise, according to the Brookings Institution, Mexico’s “populist” president “Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) made a point to publicly wander the streets, tweeting selfies and kissing a baby on March 21. He urged people to chill and read García Márquez’ famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera.” AMLO had to be ordered by federal courts to take measures to protect people from the epidemic. The former leftist guerrilla and now-president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, led a “Love in the Time of COVID-19” parade on March 14.

The Hell Unleashed

Guayaquil, Ecuador:

The port city of Guayaquil with about three million residents was hit hard, its hospitals completely overwhelmed. A doctor told the New York Times, “There were people dying at the doors of our clinics and we had no way of helping them. Mothers, husbands, asking in tears for a bed, because, ‘You are a doctor, and you have to help us.’” At another hospital a doctor reported, “There were corpses in wheelchairs, in stretchers and on the floor in the emergency area.... The smell was such that the staff refused to enter. Several of his colleagues fell sick and waited in wheelchairs for patients to die, hoping it would give them a chance to use a ventilator.”

CNN reported on a woman who waited for 24 hours at the hospital for her mother to get a bed—finally a nurse took her aside and told her, “If you have the money to treat your mother at home, do it. If you keep her here, she will die.” Another man told CNN that when his father became ill he drove four hours and was denied admission at 10 hospitals, before finally being accepted at the 11th. And when his father was given a room he was sharing it—with two corpses!

But it was not only hospitals overwhelmed, but morgues and funeral homes as well. When the man’s father died, the hospital lost track of his body amid the hundreds of deaths, so he was sent to the morgue to search for him: “there were bodies stacked one on top of each other. Going into that room, it’s like hell.” Unable to find him, he came back four days in a row and searched through 250 bodies, many of them decomposing in un-refrigerated spaces.

Funeral homes, too, were overwhelmed. First people did burials in cardboard coffins, then even that became impossible and they were just left in the street to be picked up. According to the New York Times, “In the city’s poorer neighborhoods, some residents said they had to wait for up to six days in the 90-degree heat for emergency services to collect the bodies of deceased relatives and neighbors.”

At this writing, the official COVID-19 death toll for the whole of Ecuador is 2,688. But as the mayor of Guayaquil said, “We will never know what the real number is, because there are no tests.”

Manaus, Brazil:

Manaus, a city of more than two million people, is considered the “gateway” to the vast Amazon region. In April, shocking photos of mass burials emerged. The Guardian reported:

On Sunday 140 bodies were laid to rest in Manaus, the jungle-flanked capital of Amazonas state. On Saturday, 98. Normally the figure would be closer to 30—but these are no longer normal times.

“It’s madness—just madness,” said Gilson de Freitas, a 30-year-old maintenance man whose mother, Rosemeire Rodrigues Silva, was one of 136 people buried there last Tuesday.... [Freitas] recalled watching in despair as her remains were lowered into a muddy trench alongside perhaps 20 other coffins.

“They were just dumped there like dogs,” he said. “What are our lives worth now? Nothing.”

The city’s mayor, Arthur Virgílio, pleaded for urgent international help. “We aren’t in a state of emergency—we’re well beyond that. We are in a state of utter disaster... like a country that is at war—and has lost,” he said.

Again hospitals were overwhelmed. CNN reported that people who came in for non-COVID illness or injury were placed in rooms with COVID-positive patients, contracted the disease and died. A doctor reported that “maternity wards became one of the main areas for infections because there isn’t an isolation plan,” and that doctors are exposed to the virus because of low staffing levels and lack of personal protection equipment (PPE).

On May 5, Bolsonaro said that, “The worst had passed” in Brazil. That day the national death toll broke its previous record. Then the next day, it broke it again. At this writing, by the official count Brazil has the fifth most cases in the world, with nearly 16,000 deaths. The real figures are certainly vastly higher.

Mexico City, Mexico:

President Obrador (AMLO) appears to have done an effective job... of concealing the devastation caused by coronavirus from much of the population and more or less keeping the factories humming to please the U.S. The government has suppressed the truth about the number of deaths—according to the New York Times, figures the national government releases publicly for deaths in Mexico City are one third the number of deaths the city is reporting to the federal government (which are certainly undercounts as well). AMLO’s health minister claimed that “we have flattened the curve,” and AMLO himself recently said, “What the world knows about Mexico is that we are taming the pandemic, and we are basically doing this because Mexican people are making a conscious effort.”

This has been deadly. In early May a Mexico City doctor told the New York Times, “It’s like we doctors are living in two different worlds. One is inside of the hospital with patients dying all the time. And the other is when we walk out onto the streets and see people walking around, clueless of what is going on and how bad the situation really is.” The same article included a photo of a densely packed train station in Mexico City with few people even wearing masks. Sky News quotes a man who had just buried his mother: “People don’t understand because there are many people who still keep going out without a face mask on, they keep playing in the parks. But the government has the responsibility to give real numbers, real figures, so that people are informed of what is going on, that there are many cases.”

And they report that “there is virtually no social distancing, with open air markets and some businesses operating normally.”

But again, what is the realitySky News reports:

There is currently a three-day backlog for cremation at every public crematorium in the city and crematorium workers in recent days have indicated that more burials will have to take place because burning capacity is overwhelmed. Black smoke billows out over cemeteries as the ovens are cremating on an industrial level in the city but the bodies don’t stop coming. ... In full hazmat suits, crematorium staff are working around the clock bringing bodies to huge ovens for disposal.

Sky News visited or spoke to 30 crematoria, and determined that they are cremating an average of 600 people a day, about 90 percent COVID-19 victims, and this does not count people who are buried. They further calculated that the official government death toll for the capital city is less than one fifth of the actual deaths.

Sky News concludes their report on Mexico with these words:

Short of a vaccine or a miracle, the effect on this society and this city could be utterly catastrophic.

True enough! But the even more important point is that short of revolution that gets rid of the imperialist system and brings about a socialist society that prioritizes the needs of humanity, the effect on humanity will be “utterly catastrophic.”


1. See The Lancet, South America prepares for the impact of COVID-19, April 29, 2020, and Brookings Institution, Order from Chaos: As coronavirus hits Latin America, expect serious and enduring effects, March 26, 2020.  [back]

In the words on one doctor, “There were people dying at the doors of our clinics and we had no way of helping them. Mothers, husbands, asking in tears for a bed, because, ‘You are a doctor, and you have to help us.’” People huddle near a young man on the sidewalk outside a clinic in Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 16. (Photo: AP)

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COVID-19 in Latin America has fed on the desperate poverty, debt, and dysfunctional healthcare systems that are the result of 500 years of pillaging by European colonialism and ongoing domination by imperialism, the very ill overwhelming hospitals, and bodies piling up in morgues. Here bodies are moved until they can be buried, Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Photo: Screencapture Al Jazeera)

In Brazil, cemeteries carry out burials in common graves due to the large number of deaths from COVID-19 disease. Relatives mourn at the site of a mass burial in Manaus in Brazil, April 21. (Photo: AP/Edmar Barros)

See also:

The Coronavirus Pandemic — A Resource Page

  • What IS the Corona virus COVID-19 and what do scientists know about this?
  • How is the capitalist-imperialist system making the effect of the Coronavirus worse than it has to be?
  • How do the “savage inequalities” of the system play out in the way this virus affects different sections of people? Who does it come down the worse on, and why?
  • How would the revolution handle the coronavirus or similar epidemics if it held state power?

Read more




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