MERCOSUR (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil)
The response of MERCOSUR, one of the leading regional economic organisations in Latin America, to the outbreak of COVID-19 has been relatively low key so far. Indeed, despite the combined economic largesse and scientific weight of countries in the bloc, the dearth of coordinated policy action and public engagement speaks to a broader malaise within MERCOSUR. To date, the secretariat has agreed in an 18 March video conference to share information and statistics as well as facilitating the return of expats and movement of goods through the bloc.
Consideration was also given to lowering tariffs on goods needed to combat COVID-19 and a $10 million fund to fight the pandemic was approved. However, by late April, Argentina exited MERCOSUR trade talks to focus tackling the outbreak of coronavirus at home, thus marking “another setback” for a common market hampered by ‘political squabbling’ and policy differences. One Brazilian diplomat caustically declared that the bloc had ‘abandoned ship’. Irrespective, it is fair to say that MERCOSUR’s response has been mixed at best, with the pandemic only further bolstering existing division between the groups’ members.
By way of contrast, CARICOM has held multiple emergency meetings, including on 1 March, to discuss a regional approach to the pandemic. The chair of CARICOM’s Council of Health Ministers, Molwy Joseph of Antigua set the tone by calling for countries to “continue to build national and regional capacity to detect, contain and manage the virus.” These concerns reflect in part the reliance of Caribbean states on foreign tourism and remittances for their economies, as well as the sharp drop in commodity prices in key markets such as North America, East Asia and Europe.
This declared regional consensus on the necessity of coordinated action to mitigate the severity of the pandemic disguises some significant divisions between member countries.
And yet this declared regional consensus on the necessity of coordinated action to mitigate the severity of the pandemic disguises some significant divisions between member countries. Divisive questions such as travel bans has marred efforts at coordination and, as of 13 April, CARICOM still did not have a common public health protocol and common border policy. CARICOM’s response has been limited with little actual policy coordination in evidence to date. One impact of the absence of a clearly coordinated strategy is that it has made external sources, present and developing responses in regions like Africa, more reluctant to get directly involved. For instance, USAID has allocated only $7.3 million to Latin America and the Caribbean while China’s role, complemented by the work of the Jack Ma and Alibaba foundations, has provided health and protective equipment to individual countries in the region.
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