Covid-19 is making pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities worse in Latin America. While the ‘urban poor’ were a clearly identified vulnerable group, there are other groups the region’s governments have forgottten in their responses. This week we identify who else is at risk.
Among population groups most vulnerable to the pandemic are the poor, and we identified last week how poverty had become an increasingly urban problem.
The urban nature of poverty increased the exposure of those groups to the health, social and economic crises unleashed by Covid-19.
Most government support in response to the pandemic consisted in cash transfers and limited schemes linked to formal employment. Identifying poor populations is relatively straightforward, at least in theory. However, identifying and supporting other vulnerable populations is much more challenging.
Yet, these groups require as much attention and support as the poor because of the conditions generated during the first waves of the pandemic. Dysfunctional social behaviours, such as discriminations, embedded in social structures and institutions across the region cannot be addressed through cash transfers. Those behaviours prevent equal access to social goods and services, for example as a result of ethnicity or gender.
Those we called ‘urban poor’ last week faced all three health, social and economic risks.
They typically have pre-existing conditions and suffer from various family dysfunctions which lockdown conditions magnified.
Women were also particularly exposed to the fallout from Covid-19. They tend to work in the services sector hit hard by lockdowns and social distancing requirements. Many of them are heads of single-parent households.
They are also most at risk of domestic violence and gender-based abuse. In Brazil, femicides increased 22% in the first month of lockdown according to the World Bank while the probability of femicides more than doubled, highlighting the difficulties in reporting those cases.
The World Bank also report calls to domestic violence helplines increased by 91% in Colombia during lockdowns, 48% in Peru, 32% in Argentina.
Children, teenagers and young adults
Latin America counts 150 million children, and half of them are poor. They will have witnessed a deterioration of their living conditions as a result of financial instability, and isolation as a result of the loss of a parent or sole caretaker.
School closures mean a schooling disadvantage for poor children and teenagers isolated in homes that lack internet connectivity and supported only by their uneducated parents.
Especially for young children the temporary conditions generated by the pandemic will have had permanent effects.
Elderly populations, most at risk of dying from Covid-19, also suffer from the social risks generated by the pandemic. They often live alone and are highly dependent on others. They experience difficulties accessing basic social and health services.
The region counts 50 million people from 500 different ethnicities who belong to indigenous communities.
They represent 8% of the population and are disproportionately poor or extremely poor.
They have restricted access to education and are typically involved in low skilled employment, and the UN reports that they typically suffer from poorer health conditions relative to non-indigenous people with similar characteristics.
They strongly depend on their daily wage, making lockdown conditions impossible.
Migrants do not benefit from safety nets. Unless they are permanent residents, they do not qualify for cash transfers and other social assistance programmes.
They live in precarious conditions, are often discriminated against and excluded from state institutions. In some countries they are not eligible to healthcare despite ‘being natural carriers of the virus‘ (UN).
They too depend on their daily wage, often from informal employment in the hospitality sector which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Staying at home is not an option, given the absence of safety net.
Even more forgotten
Finally, we have the ‘forgotten’. Sex workers, prisoners, homeless and transgender populations are often discriminated against and excluded from social protection programmes.
The pandemic in general, and lockdowns in particular have significantly affected those under-represented, vulnerable groups.
Segregation, labour informality and casualization of employment, as well as fragmented public health care systems have all been powerful amplifiers of inequalities in the region.
Government responses in the region failed on two grounds: they have not been inclusive, nor have they offered universal protection.
Only an inclusive, universal social protection programme will achieve success in combatting the spread of the virus and ensuring the resilience of these communities for as long as Covid-19 will be with us.
* Nicolas Forsans: Professor of Management and MBA Director at the University of Essex, UK. Co-director of the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a member of many Latin American societies and think tanks, Nicolas investigates the economic and societal challenges in the region generally, and in Colombia more specifically.
Latin America in a post-Covid world: Those our governments forgot,
Latin America in a post-Covid world: The urban poor and the pandemic.