With a fifth wave of infections and deaths running its course in Europe and the Americas, Covid-19 shows no sign of retreating. The disease itself, but also the conditions generated by government response to it interact with pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities in Latin America. This week we assess the impact of the pandemic on the ‘urban poor’.
Inequalities in Latin America are embedded in social structures and institutions.
The social protests that marred the region in the first two years of the pandemic were an expression of grave suffering of populations against precarious and unequal access to public goods and services, the absence of a space to raise their voice in the political system and inadequate or insufficient government responses to the pandemic. The lack of inclusive social protection mechanisms exposed significant proportions of the region’s population to the loss of lives and livelihoods.
In the first wave of the pandemic the UN had argued that Covid 19 would exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Indeed, and as we argued while starting this series, Covid-19 brought with it a health crisis, a social crisis and an economic crisis. And different groups were vulnerable to each of these crises.
Contagion, illness and death
Older populations and those with pre-existing health conditions were the two main groups most at risk of the health impact of covid: contagion, illness and death.
While the share of elderly people in Latin America is low by world standards (less than 9%), that with a pre-existing medical condition is characterised as ‘worrisome’ by the UN, with excess weight and obesity two of the most prevalent conditions affecting 60% of the region. Diabetes affects 10% of Latin Americans. In total, 142 million people in the region alone were identified as being in danger of contracting Covid-19. That is a quarter of the region’s population exposed to the health risk alone.
Social and economic risk
Then there are those suffering from multiple deprivations at risk of the social and economic crisis that unfolded.
The poverty rate in Latin America, defined as the proportion of those living with less than US$ 5.50/day in purchasing parity terms, is 23%. Nearly 4% are extreme poor, living with less than US$ 1.90/day.
They do not earn enough to afford basic necessities, and around 10% (even more so in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ecuador) have been at risk of falling into extreme poverty.
As the UN wrote at the time, ‘poverty is a life condition that implies deprivation in multiple dimensions’ – not just income.
80% of those in the poorest quintile of the income distribution work in the informal sector, with no social security, social protection nor pension.
A quarter of Latin Americans lack access to safe drinking water, a third lack internet connectivity and nearly half lack a bank account.
Those deprivations are relevant because they interacted with the conditions generated by the pandemic. They made people more likely to contract Covid-19, and the pandemic made the suffering produced by these deprivations even worse.
With two thirds of the poor living in urban areas poverty has now become an urban problem. These ‘urban poor’ are most vulnerable to social and economic upheavals.
The ‘urban poor’
Latin America’s cities are the most unequal cities on earth.
82% of the region’s 588 million population lives in cities, and roughly 112 million ‘urban poor’ live in slums in some of the world’s largest cities, but also the region’s 310 cities with a population in excess of 250,000 and another 16,000 smaller towns.
Latin American cities contribute two thirds of the region’s GDP. Yet, they are very heterogeneous socio-economically, and segregated both spatially and socially.
They evidence high urban income inequality coefficients and the persistence of informal settlements. While the proportion of the population living in slums has fallen over the past two decades, in absolute terms the number has increased to 112 million people. Integration of neighbourhoods remains precarious in most cities.
With a large proportion of ‘urban poor’ living in slums, overcrowding and the lack of sanitation and basic services make it more likely to contract the virus.
Labour informality exacerbates the impact of the loss of income as a result of lockdowns and the absence of social insurance.
As we argued, the poor are unlikely to have jobs that can be performed remotely, and even if they could the lack of basic home infrastructure (space, internet connectivity) would have prevented them from doing so.
While lockdowns reduced the spread of the virus overall, they made life impossible for those suffering from deprivations. Indeed, ‘staying at home’ will have caused other health problems.
As we discussed last week, the ‘urban poor’ and those with medical conditions were only a fraction of those vulnerable to the disease and the conditions generated by lockdowns. Our series will continue and assess the challenges governments faced while responding to the pandemic and attempting to support those most at risk.
* 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.