COVID, Communities, and Crime: A Discussion with Dr. Ryan Berg


Photo Courtesy of Zacarias Negron

Pipa Powers, Contributor

Vanderbilt’s Alexander Hamilton Society hosted an event, “The Intersection of Pandemics and Politics in Latin America,” with Dr. Ryan Berg, on September 22, 2022. Dr. Berg specializes in U.S.-Latin America relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he serves as the head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative.

This panel focused largely on the impact of the pandemic on community outreach and support in various Latin American countries. Dr. Berg discusses the disparities between the government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution. He discussed how in Brazil, the community worked together to access vaccines, in spite of the leaders not working to help people get them. 

Vaccine distribution was harmed not only because of government barriers, such as COVID denial and a lack of infrastructure for distribution but also because of former President Donald Trump’s America First distribution policy. This led to governments importing vaccines from China, which had notably lower efficacy rates than the vaccines developed in the United States. 

Dr. Berg then explained that when President Trump finally came around to distributing vaccines to Latin American countries, he did so based on population, not need. This resulted in vaccines not being distributed to the economically vulnerable communities that needed them most. These communities are more likely to have multigenerational households as people struggle to live on their own. Dr. Berg mentioned the favelas in Brazil, in which if one individual got COVID, then the entire housing unit was at risk. Lack of access to vaccines meant that people were at a higher risk of not only contracting COVID, but also exposing large numbers of individuals.

Another major issue the panelists discussed was that COVID denial among several Latin American governments worsened existing distrust in governments due to a history of failed promises. Ultimately, this led to communities placing more trust in organized crime than the governmental institutions. This entails something like El Chapo’s daughter providing community food baskets and criminals stealing vaccines from the governments and distributing them more quickly to the communities. Dr. Berg stressed that these organizations were still engaging in human and drug trafficking while gaining community support. 

The panel also discussed economic implications of the pandemic for Latin American governments. Many of these countries are currently undergoing “stagflation,” where inflation grows but GDP doesn’t. Individuals within these countries have faced the burden of the economic harms, which prompted an audience question about circumventing inflation using cryptocurrency. The idea is that the value of cryptocurrency is not as impacted by the country’s inflation rate. Dr. Berg acknowledged that there are Latin American countries that accept Bitcoin as a form of currency in day-to day-transactions, which may allow some individuals to avoid the ramifications of inflation. However, he stated that this is not a common practice and most individuals continue to engage in economic activity using traditional methods of payment. 

Maya Reddy, executive officer for the Alexander Hamilton Society, emphasized the importance of the “interdisciplinary nature of public health and politics.” She explained that this panel was important for recognizing the interactions of these two areas beneath the surface. She encouraged us to keep a worldly view in our daily lives. This idea aligns with the panelist’s focus on approaching this issue very broadly and explaining the implications of the pandemic on many different facets of Latin American governments and economies.