Challenges of COVID-19 in Latin America, the most unequal region in the world

Latin America deserves a new opportunity to recover through a human rights-based approach that includes marginalised but key groups. Español Português

Amanda Romero Diana Figueroa Marina Novaes
13 May 2020, 12.09pm
15 April 2020, Peru, Arequipa: Cleaners are on duty because of the novel coronavirus and disinfect a street. Photo: Denis Mayhua/dpa
Photo: Denis Mayhua/dpa/PA Images

The crisis

A recent article by a Paraguayan journalist cited several people reacting negatively to a viral message on Twitter in which a 14-year old adolescent was captured while stealing food in Asuncion, arguing he was hungry. These people said that stealing food is wrong under any circumstances.

But we live in special circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening millions of people heavily impoverished in Latin America. As the Economic Commission for Latin America & the Caribbean stated, “In the five years prior to the outbreak, between 2014 and 2019, growth had sagged to just 0.4%, its lowest rate since the 1950s”, and said that the pandemic will hit this region hard, even pushing Argentina back into a “default” situation.

While the pandemic arrived after it had already devastated Europe (and now the United States), everybody in the human rights field knew that health and social services in Latin America had been dismantled progressively, mostly via privatisation and the shrinking of public programmes and spending. Hence the pandemic will affect principally the vulnerable people who can’t access basic public services.

At the same time, state reforms focused on economic growth based on the extraction of commodities at the expense of nature and human rights, as well as on low-paying jobs with no social security in export-oriented manufacture and other industries. The rapid increase of wealth in sectors like agribusiness, mining, construction and oil & gas benefitted national elites and transnational corporations, investors and the financial sector. They enhanced their economic and political power while leaving behind millions of people who now see the pandemic deepening older human rights problems like racial, ethnic, gender, class and environmental discriminations.

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The responses by governments and businesses to the pandemic reflect the asymmetric relationships in the most unequal region in the world. In our portal on COVID-19, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is tracking the behaviour of companies in this context. Some companies have taken the right steps by paying their workers, avoiding indiscriminate dismissals and obeying social distance rules.

The pandemic is being used as an excuse to remove labour rights and other social protection regulations.

Some companies have distributed their produce to vulnerable communities. It raises the question: Why did they not do this before? In areas with water shortages, where this natural resource has been privatised, now companies offer to distribute it for free. In some countries, like Colombia, Guatemala and Peru, indigenous people continue to face reprisals for defending their water sources against coal and mining companies.

In many other cases, regrettably, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to remove labour rights and other social protection regulations. Business associations and companies have exerted immense pressure over many Latin American governments to relax measures to prevent the spread of the infection, arguing that the economy should come first, and that people will die if the economy does not “reopen”.

Additionally, the private sector and governments from North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific, which are now slowly passing the peak of the pandemic, are pushing for Latin America-based companies tied to their supply chains to resume production - disregarding the health and safety measures necessary for people to survive.

Ignoring the lessons from other regions, we are witnessing irresponsible attitudes by governments such as Brazil and Nicaragua, where their presidents wilfully ignore World Health Organization recommendations; or Ecuador, where the high number of victims has revealed acute scarcity of hospital beds and equipment, and where medical and sanitary staff have not been receiving their salaries, or as in Mexico where the basic equipment to protect themselves is not available in every region.

We have covered examples of mining, manufacture and agriculture companies demanding their employees continue working as if nothing was happening and have registered higher rates of contagion. While some people can work from home, and some others in “essential” sectors can’t, the reality is that millions of migrant workers, delivery & transport workers, food markets employees, domestic workers and people in the informal economy, are under a much greater risk at this moment.

Some companies are arguing that their business activities are “essential” to keep the economy moving and have actively lobbied to modify regulations. For example, the Ministry of the Environment in Honduras has sped up approval of environmental licences for mining and hydroelectric projects.

Other mining, garments and export-oriented companies have used a narrative of maintaining some key jobs to protect the national economies. But they are also taking advantage of flexible tax deadlines, economic benefits and ‘emergency’ measures, and interpreting permits in a way that allows them to dismiss many employees without any social compensation (as in Peru and Colombia, or worse in El Salvador and Honduras, where authorities simply overlook this practice).

Another angle of the emergency has to do with how companies should support their women workers suffering domestic violence and other gender-related abuses. In the garment, flowers, banana and other sectors, women workers are not considered despite the discrimination and oppressions they suffer, when working at home suffering male violence, or attending the workplace in heavily gendered sectors, where social distancing is not practiced and safety gear is not provided. Moreover, in some cases, pregnant women have been the first to be let go from their jobs with no due guarantees and compensation.

The future

These are hard times. Experts and international organisations like Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations say that our nations will be desperate to recover. But recovery from the crisis must have at its core social and human rights considerations over economic growth.

During and after this emergency, companies should abide by human rights due diligence frameworks, according to international law.

Some say the world has to change its relationship with nature and the relationship between human beings after the pandemic is over. But we argue it has already changed. A new global economic model should put people at the centre, which means that responsible business conduct is crucial.

During and after this emergency, companies should abide by human rights due diligence frameworks, according to international law. In a basic way, this means that companies should avoid causing harm to human rights, including labour and environmental rights, and that they should repair, remedy and mitigate the harms already caused.

There are different views about how to go about this. Many voices in civil society are calling on governments to stop environmental impact assessment studies, free, prior and informed consent procedures, licencing and regulatory reforms, including fracking, while the pandemic is still ongoing. They claim that returning to extractive, commercial, transport or other business activities without protecting millions of human beings will have worse consequences for the ability of people to produce, consume and support our already weak economies.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, widely adopted in Latin America, acknowledge that companies are responsible for those impacts they cause directly and indirectly, even if they did not have the intention to cause harm.

Latin America deserves a new opportunity to recover, through a human rights-based approach that includes indigenous, peasant and afro-descendant peoples, quilombolas, women, migrant workers, trade unionists and other marginalised but key groups.

The final aim of this much-needed new global economic model, based on human rights and environmental due diligence, is making companies accountable for how they make their profits, and to see greater reflection on the extent to which their activities positively contribute - or not - to a just society and a healthy environment.

Ultimately, the model will only change if we learn the right lessons from the failures of the exclusionist economic system we have built. We have the opportunity now to place people and their human rights at its heart.

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