Are stay-at-home regulations due to the COVID-19 Pandemic actually leading to significant reductions in mobility? 

COVID-19 arrived “late” in Latin America and the Caribbean, several weeks after the major outbreaks in China and across Europe, which led to precautionary measures being taken in Latin America and the Caribbean countries. Many governments (national and local) acted swiftly and implemented stringent lockdown measures, hoping to curb the spread. We will never know what would have happened in the absence of such measures, but we know well that, in spite of these efforts, most countries in the region were hit very hard by the virus. Not only do several LAC countries have some of the highest cumulative confirmed cases per capita in the world (as of September 22, Aruba, Panama, Peru, Chile, and Brazil ranked among the top ten countries), the virus continues to spread —with several LAC countries also registering some of the highest new daily confirmed cases per capita in the world (as of September 22, Argentina, Costa Rica and Aruba ranked among the top ten countries).

So, while LAC prepared early—the virus has stayed long. One challenge that results from this is how to effectively maintain the emergency measures put in place to prepare for the crisis, when the crisis has become a much longer-term affair than expected. It has been almost seven months since the pandemic arrived in the region, and unfortunately the end of this crisis is still not clearly in sight. Using data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) and from Google’s COVID-19 Mobility Reports, this #GraphForThought explores how long countries in LAC have been under COVID-19 “stay at home” orders and looks at how much people have actually stayed at home during this time.

As a recent article (Galindo, 2020) remarks, Latin America has become a region of “infinite quarantines.” But just how long have people been locked down? The OxCGRT database records daily information on the stringency of different COVID-19 containment policies, including “stay at home” orders. Specifically this variable records “orders to ‘shelter-in-place’ and otherwise confine to the home” and classifies them on a scale from 0-3, where 0 implies no measures are in place; 1 implies that measures recommend not leaving house;  2 implies measures require not leaving house with exceptions for daily exercise, grocery shopping, and 'essential' trips; and 3 implies that measures require not leaving house with minimal exceptions (e.g. allowed to leave once a week, or only one person can leave at a time, etc). If we count the number of days that countries have put in place stringent (level 2 or 3 on the OxCGRT scale) orders requiring people to stay at home, we see that many LAC countries are experiencing extended lockdown periods. While countries such as Costa Rica and Uruguay have had no or very limited lockdowns, 14 countries have been under stringent stay at home orders for over 150 days (more than 5 months).

By combining the data on the stringency of stay at home orders with the data on “residential mobility” (which measures the % change in the time that people spend at home, compared to a pre-pandemic baseline), we are able to see trends in relative compliance over time. The figure here shows how the stringency of stay at home orders (shown by the colored line) and the change in residential mobility (shown by the grey area) evolve in tandem over time (during the period February 17th -September 11th). Note that the changes in residential mobility may be even larger than they seem, because, as Google explains, since “people already spend much of the day at places of residence (even on workdays), the capacity for change isn’t so large…People typically work for 8 hours a day. Because there are only 24 hours in a day, the largest change possible on a working day might only be +50% and even less on weekends.” Thus in countries where we are seeing an almost +40% change in residential mobility, this may suggest that people are spending almost all of their time at home.

As the steep initial grey curve shows, most LAC countries saw a huge initial boost in the amount of time that people stayed home in early March—and we tend to see generally similar trends between the strictness of stay at home measures and the change in residential mobility. However, while initial compliance was high—the amount of time that people spend at home has been on a downward trend in all countries. In some cases, this corresponds with less stringent stay at home orders (i.e. Aruba, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay). However, in other cases, people have started to spend less time at home despite the fact that stay at home orders have remained equally strict (i.e. Bolivia, Brazil Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru). Moreover, it’s not always clear in which direction the policy change and behavior change influence one another. For example, in some countries, people started staying at home before strict measures were put in place (i.e. Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico); whereas in others this change in behavior seems to have taken place after the measures were put in place (i.e. Honduras, Peru, Venezuela). The converse may also be true in terms of easing restrictions—for example, less stringent polices in some countries were instituted in the wake of already declining compliance (i.e. Aruba, Barbados, Belize).

While no single-story emergences from the diverse lockdown patterns in the region, one thing seems to be clear: as stringent stay at home orders extend over longer and longer periods of time, their efficacy seems to wane. People have a limited capacity to stay at home for an indefinite period of time—and, as I have noted before, this capacity is not distributionally neutral. Indeed, staying at home, particularly for longer periods of time, is a privilege that many cannot afford. For the many people who cannot work from home, staying home may not be a financially viable option. Moreover, if we see temporary emergency social protection measures come to an end too soon, this challenge could be further compounded. One’s capacity to stay home, however, is not the only factor which influences people’s behavior in this regard. Other factors, such as one’s perception of the government as legitimate (whether due to its effectiveness in combatting COVID-19 or the fairness of the process through which these policy decisions are being made) may also matter for citizens’ willingness to voluntarily comply with the rules. In sum, if countries in the region are going to effectively combat COVID-19, it seems to be increasingly evident that extending stay at home orders will not be enough on its own. “Smart” reopening, under clear protection protocols, social protection instruments to compensate people from lost income, new education protocols to prevent all children from exclusion in education systems, and effective governance to reach vulnerable populations must be among the key ingredients.

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