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Poverty and Inequality Get Worse in Latin America as COVID-19 Infections Surge

By Santo D. Banerjee

NEW YORK (IDN) —Latin America is scrambling to contain surging COVID-19 infections while confronting near-certain recession and related impacts. But polices that prioritize poor and vulnerable people can help mitigate the region’s already extreme poverty and inequality, says a new study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Before the pandemic, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected only 1.6 percent economic growth for the region in 2020, with recessions in several countries. In April, it projected a contraction of 5.2 percent, with almost every country in recession. However, tourism-dependent Caribbean nations could see GDP plunge between 5 and 10 percent—worsening the region’s chronic poverty, inequality, and insecurity.

As of June 24, Latin America and the Caribbean had 2,154,566 confirmed cases and a total of 100,214 deaths, straining chronically under-funded health systems. Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile have the highest numbers of deaths in the region, and Brazil now has the highest number of deaths worldwide after the United States. Experts also fear some countries are grossly under-reporting the number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative has proposed three indicators to capture the risk of COVID-19 infection: lack of access to safe drinking water; use of noxious fuels inside homes; and malnutrition. By those measures, 142 million people are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in Latin America—roughly one quarter of the region’s population.

And citizens across the region are worried. A survey of more than 1,000 people in Argentina and reports from 15 other UNDP country offices in the region found Latin Americans cited major worries related to lockdown measures aimed a containing the pandemic. Top concerns were:

– Income: 12 of 16 countries named falling incomes among the main concerns; 10 named falling incomes as their number one concern.

– Health: Eight of 16 countries named health-related issues such as access to medication and health services among top concerns.

– Domestic violence: Six of 16 countries named domestic violence among main concerns, fueled by high levels of alcohol and drug abuse in poor areas.

– Food supplies: Five countries named access to food among the main concerns.

– Discrimination: Five countries mentioned discrimination or exclusion of minorities, migrants, or members of the LGBTIQ community as a top concern.

– Overcrowding. Five countries named cited overcrowding among main concerns.

– Education: The in-depth report for Argentina found that limited access to online education and the government’s failure to provide printed booklets to all children had severely disrupted learning—likely increasing the risk of students dropping out of school for good.

Policy actions can limit long-term damage

The study considers action urgent in multiple related areas such as the epidemiological, healthcare, and sanitation front; the economic front; labour markets; and social protection.

The report asks governments in the current state of emergency  to prioritize transparent public information campaigns, plan strategies that involve marginalized groups in urban areas and indigenous communities, guarantee access to clean water, soap, food, income, and other essential items, ensure internet connectivity, use spaces other than hospitals to isolate COVID-19 patients, and design strategies to safely move patients among medical facilities.

As a next step, says the study, governments should provide free COVID-19 testing to the poorest and most vulnerable groups, keep opening new isolation centres, guarantee access to safe drinking water, ensure marginalized groups own devices that allow them to be tracked, expand digital financial inclusion, protect livelihoods, and provide monetary transfers to the poor.

The governments are further advised to devise temporary employment programs, direct safe food distribution, implement tax cuts or deferrals, prevent cutting of basic services such as water, electricity, and Wi-Fi, mitigate domestic violence, sustain education, and ensure access to health and medication beyond COVID-19.

UNDP at the country level

UNDP is working throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to help contain the pandemic and mitigate its social and economic impacts:

 – In Argentina, UNDP has developed a social media campaign promoting inclusive finance. #PlataSinBanco (“money without bank”) explains current alternatives to withdraw money from a local ATM, even without a debit card or bank account. This program supports the Emergency Family Income effort by the national government to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations, among other measures. UNDP also partnered with regional Innovation Labs through a virtual Hackathon, gathering more than 800 partners and 2,000 proposals to cope with COVID-19.

 – In Barbados, to generate jobs and safely deliver food, UNDP and FarmFinder are devising a digital farming and fisheries portal to more effectively connect vendors and consumers, including a system to trace and track locally farmed and fished products.

 – In Haiti, UNDP is working to reprogram existing funds, with agreement from donors, to procure essential PPE, supporting medical personnel, and supporting the judicial and corrections systems.

 – In Honduras, UNDP is providing technical assistance to prioritize households most affected by the crisis to receive social support and food transfers and launching a cash transfer mechanism that will reach some 500,000 people.

 – In Mexico, UNDP and UN Women are building response capacity and prevention units of the Secretariat of Women of the Government of Mexico City, which support women victims of domestic and gender violence. UNDP is also working with the Zurich Foundation to support 6,000 families from 100 communities with high levels of poverty, in the South of Mexico. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 July 2020]

Photo: In Argentina, UNDP has developed a social media campaign promoting inclusive finance. #PlataSinBanco (“money without bank”) explains current alternatives to withdraw money from a local ATM, even without a debit card or bank account. Credit: UNDP Argentina

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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