Looking back on 2020 through the lens of #GraphForThought, it is evident how quickly both the development concerns in the region shifted as well as the data available to understand them. In LAC, we started off the year looking at longer-term challenges such as urban inequalities and demographic shifts as well as contemporary challenges such as the social unrest that was spreading throughout the region. However, come March our attention rapidly shifted to the pandemic and remained focused on the multiple crises brought on by Covid-19.
While at first the virus was slow to spread to LAC countries, the region experienced a tidal wave of infections—becoming the epicenter of the pandemic during the months of July and August. From August onwards, LAC has been leading the total number of deaths worldwide with over 486,000 cumulative deaths. While the world is ending 2020 with over 77 million cases and more than 1.7 million deaths, the LAC region accounts for 20% of total cases and 30% of total deaths in the world. A disproportionate representation considering that LAC countries are less than 9% of the world population. While the region looks to be on a downward trend, it is unclear if this progress will be sustained into the new year.
Countries in LAC took early and decisive action to “flatten the curve” by implementing containment policies such as lockdowns and quarantines, but the pandemic was still devasting in the region. In #GraphForThought, we explored related challenges such as existing health sector capacity, the socioeconomic privilege associated with being able to stay at home, the prolonged nature of lockdowns in the region, the role of existing noncommunicable diseases in fostering a ‘syndemic,’ the parallel challenge of an ‘infodemic,’ and as well as the underreported scale of the tragedy as measured by excess mortality. As businesses and schools shut their doors and countries closed their borders, the health crisis also became a social, economic, and governance crisis. In #GraphForThought, we explored related challenges such as inequalities in distance learning, the rise in searches for social protection benefits, the capacity to expand cash transfers through existing social registries, inequalities in access to remote working arrangements, changes in labor force participation and employment by gender, economic losses due to tourism declines in the Caribbean, increases in domestic violence during quarantine, and the resilience of remittance flows to the region. While some of the challenges brought on by COVID-19 were new, most of them emerged from or were exacerbated by the structural challenges that already existed in the region—many of which were behind the social unrest with which the year began.
This Year in Review revisits 5 COVID-19 related #GraphForThought posts, updating them with more recent data—reflecting on what we knew then, and what we know now.
1. Getting better at accounting for deaths: Revisiting data on COVID-19 deaths and excess mortality trends
The July 7th #GraphForThought post “A greater tragedy than we know: Excess mortality rates suggest that COVID-19 death toll is vastly underestimated in LAC” compared confirmed COVID-19 deaths with excess mortality data from The Economist for four countries in the region (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru).
At the time, the data suggested that actual death toll from COVID-19 was much higher than was being captured in official statistics—as much as five times higher in some locations. However, countries were still in the process of scaling up COVID-19 testing and improving their methodologies to report on associated deaths. Since then, many countries in the region have refined their information systems and have developed working groups to report national and subnational statistics not only on confirmed COVID-19 deaths but also on excess mortality rates (see for example, government dashboards on excess mortality from Chile, Mexico, and Peru).
Using updated data on excess deaths and confirmed COVID-19 deaths (from national sources and Our World in Data as indicated in the source notes of the graph), we can see how reporting on COVID-19 deaths has changed throughout the pandemic. While the true death toll from COVID-19 is likely still much higher than we know, reporting systems in LAC appear to have improved greatly throughout the pandemic—as the graph shows smaller discrepancies between the number of excess deaths (light grey curve) and the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths (red curve) as the year wore on. The dark grey line charts how the share of excess deaths unaccounted for by confirmed COVID-19 deaths changes over time in each country.
5. More spending, less poverty…but for how long?: Revisiting data on COVID-19 related social assistance expansion
The September 3rd #GraphForThought post “Inclusion requires capacity: The role of social registries in expanding cash transfers in the wake of COVID-19” looked the coverage of social registries in the region as a way to gauge countries’ capacity to rapidly scale up social assistance programs to vulnerable populations during the crisis. At the time of the post, we saw a wide range of coverage for existing social registries and cash transfer programs—seeing that in some countries, social registries cover a far broader segment of the population than those currently receiving cash transfers (suggesting vast scope for rapid horizontal expansion of benefits), whereas in others, this scope is much more limited. While it is difficult to find cross-country data on how much these cash transfer programs have actually been expanded during the crisis (given the creation of new programs, expansion of old programs, and overlap between programs), spending data from the IMF’s regional economic outlook on fiscal measures providing direct support to households offers an alternative view of this question. Looking across countries, we see vast heterogeneity in spending (as a share of GDP)—ranging from over 5.3% in Brazil to less than 0.1% in Mexico and Antigua and Barbuda. Higher spending has been essential in combatting poverty and economic contraction in some countries. Indeed, we see an inverse relationship between fiscal spending as a share of GDP (blue bars) and projected increases in poverty (at $5.50 PPP poverty line) when social assistance measures are taken into account (yellow dots). For example, Brazil has spent 5.34% of GDP in direct support to households, and is expected to see a decrease in poverty of 0.20 percentage points; Argentina has spent 1.40% of GDP, and is expected to see an increase in poverty of 1.90 percentage points; Colombia has spent 0.99% of GDP and expected to see an increase in poverty of 4.50 percentage points; and Mexico has spent 0.03% of GDP and is expected to see an increase in poverty of 8.10 percentage points.