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COVID-19 in Latin America: A pandemic causing an economic and healthcare catastrophe


Picture by UNICEF Ecuador, 2018, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Human mobility in Latin America today is marked by the systematic infringement of human rights in countries of origin. Migration in Latin America often takes place through ‘tracks’, irregular roads usually controlled by gangs, drug cartels and groups that collect large amounts of money to smuggle people on the routes from the Central American borders and Venezuela to Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru. Most people are leaving without traces, without any documents, without passports or registration, to places where there is no rule of law, therefore resulting in persistent violations of human rights. This gives room to the trafficking of women, girls and adolescents who are offered false jobs, and are subsequently sexually exploited. 


COVID-19 has made the situation more acute. The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis is manifold: a domestic lockdown driving an immediate fall in economic activity; a slowdown on global demand affecting particular exports, remittances, tourism and foreign direct investment in the region; a collapse in commodity prices, mainly oil prices, increasing twin deficits; and financial volatility affecting currency depreciation and financial assets’ values. Lockdowns to mitigate the pandemic have hit particularly hard low-paid and informal workers. As many as 38% of total workers (and 61% of vulnerable informal workers) do not have access to any kind of social protection. The limited capacity of health systems and the high levels of informality in most countries amplify the challenge of fighting this pandemic. The region spends four times less on healthcare than OECD countries. 


Let us draw the grim picture of what is happening in Venezuela and Central America. By February 2019, 3.4 million people had fled Venezuela to neighbouring countries: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, the United States, and Spain. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), migration from Venezuela amounts to a projected 6.5 million by 2020 and is one of the largest and fastest flows of vulnerable populations in the world. At the current juncture of COVID-19, the fragility of the rights of Venezuelan migrants is visible: stigmatised in times of business closure and loss of jobs in the informal economy, and without liquidity to maintain themselves. Women, children and adolescents, expelled from homes and shelters, in total despair, helpless and without social support, fall prey to the virus.


In Central America, the situation is not much better. The number of displaced people making their way to the US in 2017 reached up to 3 million people. They left fleeing criminality, seeking to reunite with their families, and looking for jobs. Most people lost their livelihood because of gangs threatening their lives. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in June 2019 that 497 migrants lost their lives trying to reach the United States. Most deaths were recorded in the waters of the Río Bravo/Rio Grande, which runs between Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, where 109 people lost their lives in 2019, a 26% increase from the 86 deaths recorded in 2018. 


One of the victims was a six-year-old Indigenous girl who died dehydrated in the state of Arizona (southern US) after crossing the border with Mexico; another was a child under twelve from El Salvador, who was shot dead in the Mexican state of Veracruz. US border patrols found several bodies in the Rio Bravo basin, a situation repeated each year because of high rainfall in this region. ‘Over half of the deaths this year – 259 – were caused by drowning, such as through shipwrecks in the Caribbean or failed river crossings. About 65 were from highway crashes, and around 20 each on railroad routes, from dehydration or exposure, violence including homicide, and sickness or lack of medical care’, said Joel Millman, IOM spokesman. 


Testimonies from Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala illustrate the dire situation: 


‘With the pandemic that overwhelms us, with COVID-19, the government of Honduras forces the population to be locked up, however counting that there are more than two million people unemployed in the country, without the help of absolutely anyone – since the government does not have unemployment insurance, or an official social assistance program as happens in European countries – people are being forced to be locked up without the hope of getting money or food. The government has offered a so-called “solidarity bag” which is literally a medium bag with some nurseries for food, which has been considered an insult and a mockery of the need of people since food is very scarce and of poor quality. In a nutshell this is a human disaster.’


In the face of the political crisis in Nicaragua, and according to the UN, there are more than 100,000 asylum seekers in the world who have fled from Nicaragua on dangerous journeys to find security in Belize, Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala. ‘I've always been a fighter. I'm not going to sit still and watch my life go down in front of me’, are the words of Sara, a 29-year-old mother who fled with her husband and children after being attached to the protests in Nicaragua. 


Guatemala has one of the least equipped health systems in Latin America. On top of that, 70% of the working population faces extreme economic uncertainty without proper work contracts or social safety nets. 


COVID-19 has led to the forced return of refugees and migrants to their country of origin, without any form of protection. They have to quarantine in schools and community buildings in improvised places. Hunger and starvation caused by the pandemic are the greatest fear. The number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean living in extreme poverty could surpass 83 million this year due to the impacts of COVID-19, leading to a significant rise in hunger. A report of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean predicts a 5% contraction in the economy and an increase in unemployment of more than 11% – making this one of the biggest crises of the century. A catastrophe without precedence is pending. The lack of opportunity and hope, the loss of employment and the breakdown of livelihoods in institutionally fragile nations drive migration to countries that are also politically unstable and do not have much better socio-economic conditions. Poverty affects not only an individual’s economic situation, but also their right to life with dignity, without hunger, without educational deficiencies, vulnerabilities or social exclusion – which is at stake in this part of the world.

Saskia Harkema, Alinis Aranguren & Samanta Morales

Dr Saskia Harkema is the CEO and Founder of Faces of Change. Pr Alinis Aranguren Agreda is a Professor of Governance at the Centro de Estudios Políticos y de Gobierno at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, Venezuela, and a Human Rights defender. Samanta Morales is a Lawyer and Human Rights Defender.

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