Paraguay is a small Latin American country bordering Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. My grandparents were forced to flee on exile from Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship in the beginning of the 1960’s. They settled in the triple border of Brazil with Argentina and Paraguay, called Foz do Iguaçu (Iguassu Falls), my hometown. As I grew up my grandfather told me stories of how grand the country was for fighting bravely in the Triple Alliance War against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil and how proud he was to be Paraguayan. The border was just 20 minutes by car from my house, we used to travel there often when I was younger to visit relatives. Personally, I disliked going there as a child because I could not see the great country my grandfather talked about. What I saw instead was a poor place with a struggling population.
Today I realize that it was due to how strikingly unequal Brazil and Paraguay were, with conspicuous differences ranging from infrastructure to evident extreme poverty. As soon as you crossed the bridge and entered Ciudad Del Este there were trash and dirt on the streets, wires all around, insane traffic and children working for a living. Few were the times during my upbringing when I have seen the country on the news, and it was either due to a political scandal or due to the lack of Brazilians visiting its shops because the dollar rates had increased. On the other hand, in comparison with its richer neighbors, the country has been on the spotlight for a good reason this time.
Since the first confirmation of Covid-19, on March 11th, President Mario Abdo Benítez declared full lockdown, closure of borders, schools and universities. According to data from the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare on April 30th, six weeks after the measures took place, the country registered 266 confirmed cases and only 10 deaths. Thus, President Benítez announced that there were no more patients in intensive care and Paraguay could return to its activities on May 4th, adopting the so called “Smart Lockdown” meaning a gradual return of working activities following a set of social distancing measures. However, the school year is scheduled to return to normal only in December to prevent a second wave.
Moreover, when Brazil confirmed the first case on February 26th, its president claimed it was not an issue the population should stress over as “Covid-19 was no more than a little cold” and thus, he did not take any containment measures to prevent the spread of the virus, ignoring international approaches and recommendations from the World Health Organization. Today, Brazil has reached over 6.000 confirmed deaths and 87.364 cases, despite several under notified cases that could account for 12 times more than official reports.
The majority of lockdown measures have been imposed by state Governors, while Bolsonaro openly claimed to believe that such measures would be worse for the country’s economy and that “people die everyday”, besides replacing the former Health Minister Luiz Mandetta for following WHO’s recommendations. When Brazil reached 5.000 confirmed deaths by Covid-19, the President unsurprisingly claimed: “So what?”. Whereas its small neighbor took all precautionary measures recommended by the World Health Org. as soon as their first case was confirmed and today has reported only 10 deaths.
Another issue has arisen due to the lockdown, observed as well in other locations where social inequalities are evident. According to the Paraguayan Minister of Labour, Carla Bacigalupo, over 65% of the population comprise informal workers, whereas in 2017 the percentage of women working in the informal sector was 67,9% in comparison with 63,2% of men, as well as 90% of youth between 15 to 19 years old. The government has not yet set up measures to support the majority of the population affected by the economic crisis, such as workers of the informal sector and agriculture. Perhaps a good approach could be similar to the brazilian, which, despite Bolsonaro’s resistance, established financial measures to support the unemployed with three monthly allowances of 600 BRLs.
In any case, both countries face a worldwide crisis requiring the finest capacity out of a policy-maker to take action swiftly and neatly, in order to prevent potential casualties and further economic damage. The difference relies on wise governance, which Paraguay has demonstrated distinctly thus far, whilst Brazil seems to have much to learn from its neighbor.