A cry for help as Covid‑19 sweeps Latin America and hunger bites

Antonio Castillo, PhD
5 min readMay 30, 2020

Shortages are returning to a continent with literal red flags to show the virus is compounding poverty.

Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr

It was a cry for help, the word “hambre” (hunger) projected against the Torre Telefónica building in downtown Santiago, Chile’s capital. It abruptly woke up a city that has been under total quarantine since mid-May. “We are locked up, and we are starving,” said José Morales, a resident of El Bosque, an impoverished shantytown south of the Chilean capital.

The light projection against the 1990’s mobile phone shaped telecommunications building — an icon of the now crumbling Chilean neoliberal economic model — happened just a few hours after a violent clash on 18 May between the police and dozens of El Bosque residents. “Those who are not dying of the corona are dying of hunger,” Morales told me on the phone. “Yes sir, hunger is back in Chile.”

The word “hambre” (hunger) projected against the Torre Telefónica building in downtown Santiago, Chile’s capital.

With almost 640,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths, Latin America has become the new focus of the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has landed in a region where 30% of its 629 million inhabitants can be classed as poor, and about 10% live in what can be regarded as misery. In its sprawling and impoverished slums — where around 117 million poor live — a new pandemic is breeding, hunger.

In Brazil, with the second-highest number of cases of coronavirus in the world, hunger is ferociously biting. It seems to be a long time since 2003–14 when the country under the Workers’ Party managed to pull 29 million out of poverty. That was a time when Brazil, the largest economy of Latin America, came off the UN map of hunger.

The impoverished Brazilian favelas, home to 13 million, are not only agonising about the lack of food but also about the lack of clean water — so fundamental to fighting the virus. For Rodrigo Afonso, executive director of the NGO Ação da Cidadania (Citizen Action), “tens of millions of Brazilians are in a situation of food insecurity”.

According to the World Bank, this year Brazil’s economy will contract by 5%. This is bad news for a quarter of the Brazilian population —…

Antonio Castillo, PhD

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia