Latin America needs a human rights-based recipe for post-pandemic recovery

In February 2021, Aruká Juma, the last remaining member of the indigenous Juma people, died of complications from COVID-19. Having survived the displacement of his tribal lands and the extermination of his people, he finally succumbed to the pandemic which spread rapidly through indigenous communities in Brazil.

Similar scenes unfolded across much of Latin America and the Caribbean: the virus spread like wildfire and affected the most vulnerable because governments failed to do enough to protect them. As Amnesty International and the Center for Economic and Social Rights noted in the ‘Unequal and Lethal’ report last month, the region accounted for almost a third of global COVID-19 deaths, despite represents only about 8% of the world’s population. .

Of course, it is far from the only region to have been ravaged by the pandemic and endemic inequalities. Leaders around the world have failed to deliver on promises to ‘build back better’ or oversee a ‘global reset’ of the economy, reinforcing systemic inequalities that have exacerbated rather than reduced the impact of the pandemic. .

But as the most unequal region in the world, the devastation in Latin America and the Caribbean has been particularly pronounced. Structural inequalities and systemic discrimination have plagued the region for far too long, with the top 1% holding almost a quarter of total income, while the bottom 20% hold less than 5%. The pandemic has further undermined access to economic and social rights, including the right to health and a decent standard of living, with an additional 16 million people having fallen into extreme poverty in the region over the past two years. .

Deep-rooted and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, mean that some groups that have been historically and systematically disenfranchised have also borne the brunt of the pandemic. Women suffer the worst part of the labor crisis that has left millions of people without means of subsistence: in addition to having more precarious jobs without social security, many women have also had to undertake much more care and work. unpaid domestic workers due to the closure of schools and other spaces. Meanwhile, in the face of decades of neglect by governments in the region to provide essential and culturally acceptable health services, indigenous peoples have had to resort to community solutions to protect themselves from health and social crises.

Venezuelan migrants walk in the outskirts of Pisiga, Bolivia, en route to Colchane, Chile, March 24, 2022.
JORGE BERNAL/AFP via Getty Images

Being born with a certain skin color or growing up in a particular zip code shouldn’t condemn you to a life of poverty or determine your chances of dying from COVID. Reversing the legacy of hundreds of years of colonial injustice is no simple task, but governments can take an important step towards equality through more progressive fiscal models and by guaranteeing universal access to health care. health.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, states must invest at least 6% of their GDP in health to achieve universal coverage. Apart from Uruguay and Argentina, none of the 15 other countries analyzed in “Unequal and deadly” reaches this minimum. As a result, more than a third of total health expenditure in the region comes from out-of-pocket household expenditure. For millions of people, a serious illness or health problem could endanger their livelihoods and push them to the edge of poverty.

State investment in public health must also include comprehensive action to eradicate the endemic corruption that undermines the sector. In Peru, which has the world’s highest per capita death rate from COVID-19, 1 in 5 people have paid bribes at hospitals and clinics to receive treatment.

Most countries will not be able to meet their social and economic rights obligations without major fiscal reforms to fund their policies. Taxes – and the accountability that must come with them – are essential in providing governments with the tools to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

According to international law, States must seek the maximum available resources to progressively achieve the full realization of economic and social rights. Yet, on average, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean collect only 18% of their GDP in the form of taxes, compared to an average of 33% for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Moreover, a large share of these already relatively low revenues comes from regressive indirect taxes, such as value added tax, which disproportionately affect the poorest sectors of the population.

In this context, it is not surprising that in much of the region fiscal policy does little or nothing to reduce income inequality. A bolder and fairer approach to taxation would not only enable Latin America and the Caribbean to address the socio-economic crises that are devastating the most vulnerable, but it would also pave a way out of the health crisis that has take over the region and protect it against future risks. catastrophic.

Every crisis brings an opportunity for change. Last year should have been a time of healing and recovery all over the world. Instead, thanks to government inaction, it has become an incubator for greater inequality and instability that will plague us for many years to come.

For Latin America and the Caribbean, to avoid continuing to be at the epicenter of global disasters – and the extinction of other indigenous peoples like the Juma tribe – governments must implement an economic recovery based on the rights, inclusive and just and addressing structural inequalities hurting the region. Decisive actions are urgently needed, not empty slogans.

Agnès Callamard is the Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Erika Guevara-Rosas is Director of the Americas at Amnesty International.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Michael M. Tomlin