COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN BOLIVIA
Poverty, precarious work, and the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons from Bolivia
Calla Hummel, Felicia Marie Knaul, Michael Touchton, V Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Jami Nelson-Nuñez & Carew Boulding
The Lancet | Open Access | Published: January 25, 2021 | DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(21)00001-2
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America with a gross domestic product of around US$3500 per capita, health spending of approximately $220 per capita, a labour market dominated by informal work, and a weak health system. However, in the response to COVID-19, Bolivia has fared better than other health systems in the region and provides insight with regard to the implementation of subnational non-pharmaceutical interventions and supporting workers without social protection.
The Bolivian Government confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the country on March 10, 2020, and responded quickly by cancelling events, closing schools and borders, and implementing a national lockdown on March 22, 2020. However, the Bolivian Government was under pressure to open the economy in an election season. In response, the Bolivian Government shifted responsibility for most non-pharmaceutical interventions to departmental and municipal governments on June 1, 2020. The Bolivian Government maintained a mask mandate, school and border closures, and a nightly curfew, while allowing departmental and municipal governments to set workplace, social gathering, population mobility, and public transit policies. Daily deaths from COVID-19 increased markedly from 20 on June 1, 2020, to 96 on Aug 1, 2020.
Subnationally, the first outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) occurred in the wealthy, politically conservative department of Santa Cruz, followed by the poor, politically moderate department of Beni in May, 2020. These two departments maintained strict confinement policies in June, 2020, to manage outbreaks. Strict policies were also maintained in the wealthy, politically conservative department of Tarija, while the other six departments relaxed restrictions quickly in June, 2020, and subsequently a surge in cases was observed. In response to an increase in deaths in June and July, 2020, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba reinstated some restrictions and the other departments shifted to a policy of isolating municipalities with outbreaks. Daily deaths began to decline in August, 2020, decreasing to 35 per day by Sept 15, 2020.
The Bolivian Government announced a post-confinement phase on Sept 1, 2020, and subsequently all departments began to relax containment strategies. A national mask mandate, nightly curfew, school closure, event ban, and border closure were maintained while allowing most workplaces and transportation to open with restricted hours and distancing protocols. Departments differed with regard to opening hours of businesses, the level of intermunicipal transportation, the size of gatherings, and local enforcement. The relaxation of restrictions in some departments coincided with the nationwide surge in COVID-19 deaths in June and July, 2020. However, deaths declined in September and October, 2020, despite the post-confinement relaxation.
Informality, inequity, and overlapping health disparities and pre-existing conditions of specific groups are systemic and persistent issues that amplified the impact of the pandemic and explain outcomes observed across the country. In the poorest departments, deaths in July, 2020, were more than seven times higher than that in July, 2019.
More than 70% of working Bolivians do not have employment contracts or employer-based social security
The national government expanded benefits for existing cash transfer programmes in late March, 2020, and extended income transfers to previously unprotected workers.
Bolivia highlights the importance of labour market structures for understanding the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (panel). Non-salaried, unprotected workers and their families have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These groups are vulnerable for multiple reasons: their work requires close contact with the public and each other without PPE; their living spaces are overcrowded without access to clean water; and most workers do not have health and unemployment insurance.
Lessons from Bolivia
The approaches used in Bolivia to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic are instructive for several reasons, and can be applied to many countries around the world, especially low-income countries.
A high proportion of the Bolivian population are affected by unequal, precarious working conditions and poverty, which creates multiple, overlapping vulnerabilities and systemic issues that exacerbate the impact of the pandemic and complicate public policy responses. Similar to many other low-income and middle-income countries, these overlapping issues require a syndemic approach.
In Bolivia, non-pharmaceutical interventions were combined with income supports targeted at workers at risk of impoverishment, but the safe delivery of such interventions was challenging. Although income support is a crucial part of pandemic relief, their delivery must be carefully orchestrated and organised in ways that do not further endanger health–eg, through electronic delivery of funds that do not require beneficiaries to be present in-person.
Policy making at the subnational level has been a crucial aspect of the pandemic response in Bolivia and many other countries around the world. Ideally, local ministries of health should operate under the umbrella of effective national stewardship of public health policy to ensure a robust response to COVID-19. Where national responses are slow or inadequate, local governments must act quickly in the absence of federal support to implement or maintain non-pharmaceutical intervention where they have jurisdiction.
Bolivia has a long history of delivering public services in cooperation with workers’ unions and other civil society groups, yet the Bolivian Government has not engaged these groups to reach vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments should apply a multisectoral, interinstitutional approach that harnesses all available formal and informal networks and non-governmental actors to protect their citizens and combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Informal workers’ organisations could be a crucial route for the government to respond to workers’ short-term needs while addressing larger systemic issues.
Bolivia, despite being a relatively small country with a population of around 11 million, mirrors the dynamics of COVID-19 in larger countries including Mexico, Brazil, Canada, and the USA: variation in subnational non-pharmaceutical intervention is key to understanding a country’s response to the pandemic.
Similar to Bolivia, many low-income and middle-income countries face the combined, structural challenges of poverty, inequity, and precarious work that require a syndemic approach.
This online publication has been corrected. The corrected version first appeared at thelancet.com/lancetgh on February 5, 2021
We declare no competing interests.
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© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.