Background: The emergence of COVID-19 in Latin America occurred within a troubled political, economic and social context, with growing trends of poverty and social inequality challenging already overburdened and underfinanced local healthcare systems. In the absence of a vaccine or of any treatment for COVID-19, public health measures such as social distancing had to be adopted. The objective of this paper is to describe the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin American countries and to summarize the social distancing measures implemented in each one of these countries, discussing the changes that took place in the social mobility of the populations and their potential effects on the course of the epidemic up to June 2020.
Results: Brazil has the highest cumulative number of cases and deaths; however, cumulative incidence rates are higher in Peru and Chile, while the highest cumulative mortality rates are in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. Some countries implemented social distancing measures before the first case was registered, culminating in lockdown in eight countries before detection of the 100th case. The measures that appear to have had the greatest impact in reducing mobility include, in addition to lockdown, the closure of schools and prohibition of events. In general, the countries that implemented social distancing measures earlier and where the reduction in social mobility was greatest also recorded lower incidence and mortality rates. Brazil and Mexico failed to adopt lockdown and the number of cases of the disease continues to grow.
Conclusions: As occurred in other continents, control of the COVID-19 pandemic was better in countries that were faster in adopting more restrictive measures. Nevertheless, this equation does not appear to guarantee a positive outcome in all settings, possibly due to the considerable social inequalities and chronic deficiencies of the healthcare systems, with the scenario being even more complex in view of the recurring political crises and the negationist view of some national leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in Latin America and exposes these contradictions. Further studies are required to gain a greater understanding and generate lessons on how to manage such a complex crisis.