Latin America’s humanitarian crises have worsened behind a Covid-19 smokescreen

A harrowing outcome of the pandemic, not only has Latin America seen some of the highest death rates worldwide, but several countries within the region are now facing considerably worse humanitarian crises than prior to the Coronavirus outbreak.

In the nine months following the first reported case of Coronavirus in Latin America, much of the conversation surrounding its impact on the region centred heavily on Brazil, a country with the most virus-related deaths second to the United States. Guaranteed to overwhelm global attention, the staggering mortality rates could be attributed to the errors of Brazil’s hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed Covid-19 as a ‘little flu’ and raged against lockdown measures, declaring self-isolation something ‘for the weak.’

Though his populist handling of the outbreak was indeed cause for international concern, it dominated headlines and left the rest of Latin America out of focus, a region already in turmoil from its struggle to hinder the unrelenting spread of Coronavirus, but one now additionally plagued with humanitarian crises exacerbated tenfold by the pandemic. 

‘Borne out of political instability, corruption, social unrest, fragile health systems, and perhaps most importantly, longstanding and pervasive inequality – in income, healthcare, and education – which has been woven into the social and economic fabric of the region’ (The Lancet), Latin America as a whole has long-suffered from a plethora of devastating issues.

However due to the heart-breaking effects of a pandemic that’s left a trail of fatalities in its wake from Mexico to Argentina (400,000 and counting, to be exact), these issues have become significantly latent.

Acting as a smokescreen, Covid-19 has obscured the severe deterioration of crises that were out of control far before anyone began showing symptoms of Coronavirus, and only now is the magnitude of this neglect being realised.

Gender-based violence

Deemed the most lethal location on the planet for women prior to the outbreak, Latin America is as deadly as ever, with activists of the #NiUnaMenos movement blaming Coronavirus for consolidating the ongoing problem of domestic and gendered violence throughout the region.

Comprising almost half of the world’s worst offending countries, fears that government-imposed quarantines would put countless women in danger were justified after Colombia alone saw an instantaneous 50% surge in reports of abuse the moment female citizens were instructed to stay indoors.

According to the UN, while an average of twelve Latin American women a day were subject to femicide in 2018, the current reality is much worse, further aggravated by the pandemic which brought about the murder of 18 Argentinian women by their partners in the first 20 days of lockdown, and a 65% increase of corresponding cases in Venezuela.

As this new wave of violence triggered by the unavoidable requirement to isolate continues to hit the region with brute force, campaigners like Arussi Unda, leader of Mexican feminist organisation Brujas del Mar, say that 2020 has catapulted the existing crisis into irrefutable tragedy, with uncertainty posing an added threat.

‘We’re terrified because we don’t know how long this is going to last,’ she says. ‘Women are already in vulnerable positions so it’s even more complicated when their rights – such as the right to move freely – are restricted, in countries where the right to live a life free of violence is not guaranteed.’

Amidst what’s being locally referred to as ‘the other pandemic,’ support hotlines are still experiencing an unyielding rise in calls for help, but without necessary aid resources to provide for victims, they have fallen behind in their efforts to respond. ‘Most shelters have closed their doors, leaving women closed in with their abusers and nowhere to go,’ says Tara Cookson, director of feminist research consultancy Ladysmith. ‘If a woman can’t go to her trusted neighbour, or escape to her mother’s house, she’s that much more isolated and that much more at risk.’

What’s more, despite feeble governmental attempts to address the new territory their countries have been thrust into, those expected to succour given their authority are no better suited to do so than the non-profits they are seemingly reliant on. This is because several Latin American police forces lack even the most basic infrastructure such as the internet to take calls, with one report divulging that 590 officers in Colombia are without access to digital tools.

The disturbing spate of recent cases of violence towards women is conceivably a product of compounding long-term ramifications of the pandemic, primarily the economic fallout that disproportionately affects women. Stripping vulnerable women of financial autonomy, researchers are calling it a regrettable loss of a decade’s work towards gender equality as these women have had no choice but to return to toxic patriarchal spaces dominated by machismo culture.

Of the innumerable horrifying examples of this, one stands out in particular: the account of a woman in Bogotá who contacted a domestic abuse support centre only to later refuse aid on the grounds that she could not leave her home because she was surviving off her husband’s salary. ‘It brings us back to this old dynamic of the man as the provider and the woman who cares for the home,’ adds Cookson.

Jeopardising any former progress at a time when women are in dire need of it, the total shutdown of modern life has unfortunately laid bare what many already knew: that violence against women almost always happens out of society’s field of vision. In Latin America, the sheer absence of a genuine comprehension of the matter, adequate prevention measures, and sufficient attention from policymakers to make visible and consequently tackle such a prevalent issue has done nothing but augment it.

A catastrophe is rapidly unfolding behind the Covid-19 smokescreen and bolstering essential support systems has never been more urgently indispensable.

Widespread displacement

Aggravating structural inequalities that have historically scourged Latin America, the pandemic has additionally exacerbated the already deplorable conditions of migrant, indigenous, and refugee populations throughout the region.

In March, following the implementation of harsh yet crucial restrictions to fight the outbreak, displacement soared, a result of limited access to health and sanitation paired with the heightened levels of job insecurity, overcrowding, and precarious living environments that came with such action.

Overnight, the world transformed into a society of social distancing to avoid an invisible but very present enemy, abandoning those unable to hide and leaving them to face the chaos of migration in which only the strongest survive.

Fleeing this newfound hardship in droves, hundreds and thousands of Latin Americans found themselves trapped at the borders of their own countries, unable to pass through temporary law-enforced closures that immediately froze the legal flow of people. Today, the aforementioned unprecedented pandemic mitigation measures have provoked a rush of what Open Democracy terms ‘a sort of mobility in immobility,’ whereby vulnerable communities must now return en masse – often by foot – to their crises-ridden countries of origin, a vast majority bearing the traumatising burden of their post-lockdown experiences.

‘If things were bad before, now they’re so much worse,’ says Alejandro, whose cousin Juan Carlos was murdered while attempting to escape the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Left to the mercy of criminal gangs openly combatting for territory when officials at safe border points began turning away hopeless migrants, Alejandro believes Juan Carlos would still be alive if it weren’t for the pandemic. ‘People have all-but-completely stopped crossing because they’re scared of getting killed,’ he says. ‘But with nowhere else to go, it’s the most complex and critical landscape one could imagine.’

Confronted with an impossible crossroads, Venezuelans are to either begin the arduous journey back to a hostile homeland where Maduro’s xenophobic rhetoric aims to dissuade ‘bioterrorists’ (as he brands them) from returning, or take the road understandably less travelled towards life-threatening danger. Those in-between the two far-from-ideal options are left in migration ‘purgatory,’ exposed to the equally as tragic reality of makeshift camps in which even the most basic needs of residents cannot be met.

‘We built improvised homes using plastic bags, sticks, and scraps of wood,’ adds Alejandro. ‘It was the only shelter available to more than 500 of us in this limbo.’

Given the heterogenous access to social protection and legal security afforded to refugees in Latin America, amidst the pandemic there has been extremely little in the way of targeted policies to ensure their rights.

Although some countries such as Uruguay and Brazil have permitted established migrants to benefit from health programmes there to minimise the effects of the Coronavirus crisis, other nations have turned a blind eye to practices actively preventing them from exercising their rights.

‘Governments in Latin America have legal and ethical obligations under international law to ensure the best provision of services for all,’ says director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre Jean Grugel. ‘They cannot be allowed to choose which rights, or whose rights, to realise and which to ignore. Accountability in their policies is paramount in addressing Covid-19.’

While the unabating efforts made by host countries and humanitarian organisations to rectify this has been tremendously useful, any progress to devise lasting solutions has evaporated during the pandemic and it will most likely take a global push for governments to continue funding the life-saving interventions that displaced indigenous communities, refugees, and migrants deserve.

Corruption and police brutality

Long-recognised as a region plagued with corruption and less than a year removed from massive protests against police brutality in an overwhelming number of countries, Latin America is once again on the radar following fresh allegations of institutional injustice.

Adding fuel to the fire, the pandemic has led to a significant influx of power abuses by police, amplified by the normalisation of substantial impunity amidst restrictions foisted by the Covid-19 situation. Though no stranger to this kind of behaviour, Latin Americans are well-aware that the virus has become a fortunate excuse for law enforcement officials to crack down twice as hard, abusing newly introduced policing measures intended to curb transmission.

On the back of the pandemic, the militarisation of Latin America is gathering momentum, analysts warn

With the militarisation of law enforcement quickly gathering momentum on the back of this, civilian police have begun operating more like armed forces and some governments have even gone as far as to deploy actual soldiers in urban areas, ignoring evidence that militarised responses to insecurity have little-to-no success. A short-term strategy for dealing with the pandemic, hyper-militarisation heavily undermines human rights, citizen security, and legal order, sending an ominous message about the functionality of states inundated with problems they appear to be incapable of solving.

In the case of the current Coronavirus crisis, these forces – often violently – have set out to intimidate citizens into confinement with warnings of potential arrest and visceral fear mongering charged with an unspoken cognisance of the several unpunished killings they have under their belts. To put this into perspective, in April, Mexican police detained 30-year-old bricklayer Giovanni López for refusing to wear a mask in public. Despite the desperate pleas of bystanders for his release, his body was later discovered in a nearby hospital with an autopsy revealing blunt trauma to the head as his cause of death. In May, the body of 31-year-old Argentinian day labourer Luis Espinoza was found in a ditch after an investigation unveiled witnesses had seen officers attack him to ‘ensure he was quarantining’ a week prior. And in June, 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto was murdered in cold blood during a raid operation where Brazilian police acted carelessly and performed their own extrajudicial motives.

‘The police feel that there is another good pretext for them to be rash, to do some social control and enforce aggressively in the name of a pandemic,’ says executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, José Vivanco. ‘There are still no answers, no arrests. This isn’t an abuse of authority. This is murder. What makes no sense is that it’s is carried out in the name of public health.’

These are just a few examples of the sickening reality that Latin Americans are currently resigned to, not to mention the pandemic-related police violence that has strained Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (which are already falling apart at the seams), nor the entirely unwarranted killings of environmental activists in Honduras.

With malaise in the region on an apparently eternal upward trajectory, and the emerging fear that Latin American democracy may be no more than a façade once the pandemic is over, the situation at hand is indisputably dire.

This summer, all eyes were drawn to the US and George Floyd’s suffocation, but in Latin America the brutality conducted by security forces has undertaken an unimaginably dark dimension and with such high levels of impunity in place, no justice is in sight.   

‘Complicated by poverty, comorbidity, and political dynamics’ (BMJ), Latin America’s humanitarian crises have undoubtedly worsened behind a Covid-19 smokescreen, making the region’s experience of the crisis especially grave. Further investment in social protection ought to be a top-priority, and until this comes into fruition, one can only hope that the UN political declaration on a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient recovery from the pandemic will soften the blow of such disastrous repercussions.

Wait, don't go yet!
Sign up to our newsletter
Thred straight to your inbox 
(what could be better)
Click right here!