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Indirect Effects of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: Lessons Learned From Impacts on Health


By Pan-American Life Insurance Group

Key Points

  • Latin America and the Caribbean were among the regions with the most deaths related to COVID-19.
  • Hospital research estimated that approximately 96,000 deaths could have been avoided if countries had maintained access to healthcare for all conditions.
  • An important concern of the post-pandemic debate is how to calibrate social and public health measures to reduce health, economic and social costs.

The COVID-19 pandemic had severe direct and indirect effects on health and wellbeing in Latin America, with major disruptions in care for non-COVID-19 diseases that require continuous medical attention. 

Two articles published in the December edition of Health Affairs analyzed administrative information from health centers in different Latin American countries that revealed the depth of this health crisis, which is still ongoing. 

They observed data on care status, hospitalizations, and the number of premature deaths that could have been avoided with access to timely and effective health care services in people under age 75 in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. 

In these countries, between March 2020 and December 2021, hospitalizations for non-COVID-related conditions dropped 28% while the mortality rate rose 15% compared to pre pandemic years. Noncommunicable diseases, such as heart conditions, diabetes, and kidney failure, represented 89% of this mortality increase.

“This association remained even after we accounted for direct COVID-19 effects and mitigation strategies, indicating that it was likely driven by reduced access to care for life-threatening but amenable health conditions, with significant consequences for population health especially in the poorest areas,” the researchers emphasized in their article published in Health Affairs.

They added that the long-term impacts may be even greater because of the delayed effects of lack of preventive services, reductions in screening tests, and gaps in treatment.

These gaps grew during the pandemic not only for health care reasons, but also because of the major impact of lockdowns on the labor market and economy.

Latin America and the Caribbean were the regions with the most COVID-19-related deaths, despite strict lockdown policies. These policies, implemented at the start of the pandemic, impacted workers by abruptly reducing the working hours of a substantial portion of the working population, analyzes the second article, based on data from Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, and Mexico. 

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The results of the economic analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic indicate that the economic impact was uneven across countries due to different pandemic trajectories, social and public health measures, and vaccine acceptance, as well as socioeconomic differences and fiscal responses. “Policy makers need to be informed about the trade-offs to make strategic decisions to save lives and livelihoods,” the researchers reflected.

Both economic and public health decisions were found to impact mortality: Argentina and Mexico, for example, had a greater decline in gross domestic product (GDP) and fewer deaths than Brazil.

Research in hospitals estimated that approximately 96,000 deaths could have been avoided if countries had maintained timely and high-quality health care access during the pandemic. “This study highlights the importance of maintaining essential health care services, particularly for patients with chronic conditions, and the need to create more resilient health care systems to minimize the negative consequences of health care disruption during health emergencies.” 

To minimize excess mortality during future emergencies, countries should prioritize avoiding disruptions in health care services through comprehensive emergency planning, coordination of care, increased use of telemedicine, effective communication, and better recovery efforts.

 A major concern in the post-pandemic debate is how to calibrate social and public health measures to reduce economic, social, and health costs. Although COVID-19 is becoming endemic, we should keep adapting social and public health measures to occasional coronavirus surges and other viral pandemics that may emerge in the future.

This story was produced using content from original studies or reports, as well as other medical research and health and public health sources cited in links throughout the article.