RIO DE JANEIRO — Most leaders in Latin America reacted to the arrival of the coronavirus in the region with speed and severity: Borders were shut. Flights were halted. Soldiers roamed deserted streets enforcing quarantines, and medical professionals braced for an onslaught of patients by building field hospitals.

But the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, who govern more than half of Latin America’s population — Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and, to a lesser degree, his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — have remained strikingly dismissive. They’ve scoffed at calls to shut down business and sharply limit public transportation, calling such measures far more devastating to people’s welfare than the virus.


In a region with high poverty rates, where hundreds of millions of people live in close quarters without access to proper sanitation or health care, experts say that approach could create an ideal breeding ground for the virus, with devastating consequences for public health, the economy, and the social fabric.

“This is a recipe for social implosion in a region that was already in a state of social upheaval,” said Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who is originally from Brazil. “In a situation like this, things can break down really fast if there is a lack of trust in government and people feel very vulnerable.”

López Obrador, a leftist, has continued to wade into crowds and kiss babies. Ruling out travel restrictions, business closings, or quarantine orders, last week López Obrador suggested Mexico would be spared by divine intervention as he held up two amulets he called “my bodyguards.”

“Do not panic, and please do not stop going out,” he said in a video Sunday night. “If you have the economic capacity, keep taking your families to restaurants because that means strengthening the family and popular economy.”


It was not until Tuesday that his government closed schools, prohibited gatherings of more than 100 people, and told Mexicans to stay at home. By then, the Mexico City government had already moved to shut down much of public life.

But Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who has been in office a little more than a year, has remained defiant, continuing to dismiss the virus as a “measly cold” that does not warrant “hysteria.” In a national address Tuesday night, Bolsonaro dismissed measures taken by governors and mayors as a “scorched earth” approach. Bolsonaro, who is 65, also said that if he were to get the virus, he would recover easily because of his “athletic background.”

While he spoke, Brazilians across the political spectrum banged pots outside their windows in what has become a nightly protest of his cavalier attitude, with some crying, “Out with Bolsonaro!”

As of Wednesday morning, Brazil had 2,271 confirmed cases, a sixfold increase from a week ago, and 47 deaths.

Most leaders in Latin America had regarded the new virus as a faraway problem until the first case was diagnosed in Brazil in late February. Since then, the coronavirus has spread briskly in the region.

The public health impact will probably be devastating. A large share of the population in Latin America lives in dense urban enclaves, where the virus appears to spread with the most ease. An estimated 490 million people lack proper sanitation.