For a recent report on ending lockdowns in Latin America, our colleagues here at the Inter-American Development Bank collected recommendations from different international organizations (including the World Health Organization and the European Commission), governments, and think tanks on how and when to begin reopening economies.
Although there are important differences between the proposals, there are also many areas of consensus. Among them, one condition stands out: the need for a sustained reduction in positive Covid-19 cases for a certain number of days—the precise number varies from case to case—as a prerequisite for ending lockdowns.
Governments from both developed countries and from our region are making decisions every day on ending the lockdowns. These are difficult decisions, as lives as well as livelihoods are at stake. A series of key variables must be taken into account in these decisions, as detailed in the report. And as we wrote recently, the considerations to be taken into account in developed countries are not exactly the same as in developing countries. For example, the age breakdown of the population is different, as are living conditions and overcrowding in homes, and there is great variation in the fiscal resources available for protecting jobs and incomes of workers in lockdown. There is no question that the costs of the lockdown in Latin America are greater. Moreover, decisions to end the lockdowns may not be optimal. They are influenced by politics and by societal pressures. But aside from all this, do the countries in our region meet that first prerequisite? Have we passed the peak of the pandemic?
The following graphics show the trend of daily deaths associated with Covid-19 per million residents in a select group of countries. We use deaths rather than cases because we know that the number of cases in almost every country in the world is vastly undercounted. Also, the degree to which the number of people infected is undercounted depends on a series of factors that varies from country to country, as well as on some factors that change over time. The availability of tests is an obvious determinant of the number of confirmed cases. If a country has a limited number of test kits, it will be undercounting the number of cases. As more test kits are rolled out, the number of confirmed cases can increase rapidly. Although the number of deaths is also not a perfect indicator—in fact, they are also undercounted, especially when hospital capacity is overwhelmed and many people die in their homes—it is without question a better indicator than the number of people infected. Because the number of deaths reported fluctuates over time, the graphs show seven-day moving averages to smooth volatility.
First we look at the case of developed countries. We have included the United States and the largest European countries: Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain.
In all of them, the number of deaths per capita is clearly in decline. The peak in the number of deaths per day was reached in Italy and Spain first (at the beginning of April), and then in the United Kingdom and France (toward the middle of April). The United States and Germany peaked toward the end of April, although in the case of Germany, at levels much lower than in the other countries. At the time of writing, deaths have been declining in all these countries for more than three weeks, although the decline has been much slower in the United States. Of course, this does not mean there will not be new outbreaks of the virus with the end of the lockdowns.
What is the situation of Latin America, where the coronavirus arrived one month later? Here we show the case of the largest countries in the region reporting significant numbers of deaths: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador.
The good news is that, aside from Ecuador, the country with the worst outbreak, the daily number of deaths per million residents has not surpassed 8, about half the peak of the European countries with the worst outbreaks—although, as explained above, we know these figures in Ecuador are undercounts. Unfortunately, the bad news is that the outbreak has not yet reached its peak. While the number of deaths per day in Ecuador remains volatile—we have even used a 10 day moving average in this case to smooth out excessive volatility—in countries like Peru, Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, the number of deaths clearly remains on the rise. And although death rates remain much lower and stable in Argentina and Colombia, Chile’s experience as of the middle of May—especially in the Santiago Metropolitan region—provides important lessons on the consequences of ending lockdowns prematurely.