Latin America Needs Inclusive Economies for post-Covid

By Luis Brizuela  (IPS-Cuba)

The driver of an electric vehicle awaits passengers on a main street in the historic center of Old Havana, in the Cuban capital. An Oxfam report urges States to invest in public services and sectors with low carbon emissions in the post-covid era. They see this generating millions of new jobs, as well as preventing further damage to the planet. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES – The COVID-19 pandemic has made economic, gender and racial inequality starker in Latin America and the Caribbean. Leading experts recommend post-COVID recovery policies that center around equality, justice and sustainability.

In order to come out of the current health and economic crisis, it’s key that governments within the region ensure universal access to an effective vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, as well as financial support to those who have lost their livelihoods.

Furthermore, States need to invest in public services and sectors with low carbon emissions to create millions of new jobs. Likewise, ensure that citizens have access to quality education, health and social assistance.

This is what the report “The Inequality Virus: Bringing together a world torn apart by coronavirus through a fair, just and  sustainable economy” states, published on January 25th by international organization Oxfam that has the mission of fighting poverty.

The report was published to promote debate about inequality during the pandemic, starting with the 2021 World Economic Forum, which was inaugurated on the same day of the report’s publication.

“It’s a matter of building economies that serve everyone, not only a privileged minority,” the report highlights, seeking to influence debates at the Forum. It took place virtually up until January 29th, and not in the Swiss city of Davos like it usually is.

It points out that the current temporary crisis can be the perfect opportunity for governments to build a “new normal”, with realistic and sensible ideas, and to transform the neoliberal economy alongside systems that are founded upon inequality and oppression, such as the patriarchy and structural racism, which are steeped in white supremacy.

Recommendations include an appeal for a radical and sustained reduction of inequality. It calls for economies that care for people, free from exploitation and with living wages.

It also proposes that progressive taxation systems be established, taxing the wealthiest in society fairly. Likewise, building a green economy that stops further damage to the planet and climate change, the greatest threat to today’s and future generations’ existence.

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has argued that vaccines against COVID-19 are “the first great moral test before us.” He says they should be understood as global public assets, available to everyone and within everybody’s reach.

Guterres’ reflection comes at a time when the mass production of antigens against the virus is being sped up, and calls are growing to stop the wealthiest nations from hogging the majority.

A street seller, selling bread and crackers, serves a customer at his precarious stall on a street in Havana, Cuba. Lockdowns, cuts in supply chains and the economic crisis offset by the pandemic, have plummeted incomes, especially of those who work in the informal sector, who are normally a lot more exposed to COVID-19, as they can’t work remotely or ask for social security benefits. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Up until February 2nd, Latin America and the Caribbean, where a third of its 650 million inhabitants live in poverty, record 19,010,460 people infected and 598,017 fatalities due to the new coronavirus, according to the Pan American Health Organization (OPS).

However, the current health crisis has spread in a world that was already extremely inequal.

Oxfam’s report reveals that the pandemic has affected people living in poverty a lot more than the wealthy, with severe consequences for women, black and Afro-descendant people, indigenous populations, and especially communities historically excluded and oppressed.

In Brazil, for example, the percentage of Afro-descendants and indigenous people living in poverty could grow by 6-7.7% this year, reaching 38% of the country’s 212 million inhabitants.

However, Brazilian Afro-descendants are also 40% more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, it points out.

Brazil is the Latin American country most affected by the virus in the region (and third in the whole world), with 9,176,975 people infected and 223,945 fatalities, according to PAHO, the World Health Organization’s continental body, based in Washington.

Other statistics reveal that women are overrepresented in the economic sectors being hardest hit by the pandemic.

In Mexico, one of the few emerging economies that still hasn’t put additional COVID-specific programs into place to support people living in poverty during the pandemic, 21% of women that used to work in the informal sector lost their jobs by May 2020, compared to 15% of men in the same sector, the report states.

The World Bank estimates that if countries begin to adopt inequality-reducing measures now, poverty will return to pre-crisis levels in just three years, instead of in a decade if they don’t.

At the Matanzas Environmental Services Center, in western Cuba, members of the “Aprendiendo de Irma y Maria” project take part in a training forum about how to handle the pandemic with resilience, by incorporating a gender-focus with comprehensive risk management.  Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

At the Matanzas Environmental Services Center, in western Cuba, members of the “Aprendiendo de Irma y Maria” project take part in a training forum about how to handle the pandemic with resilience, by incorporating a gender-focus with comprehensive risk management.  Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Inequality means that there are more sick people, and less people able to receive an education and live a happy and dignified life. Inequality poisons our political life, feeding extremism and racism, undermining the struggle to put an end to poverty, and it allows fear to crush hope for most of the population,” Oxfam warns.

On January 14th, social authorities in Latin America and the Caribbean ratified the Regional Agenda for Inclusive Social Development, adopted as a road map to move towards a gender-focused recovery post-COVID.

The agenda has four courses of action: universal and comprehensive social security systems, social and labor inclusive policies, strengthened social institutionalism, and regional cooperation efforts and integration.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), the pandemic has led to a 7.7% drop in the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.

This is why the economic body has proposed, among other pressing measures, to increase emergency basic wages in the most vulnerable sectors of the population to 67 USD per month, which is the equivalent to the extreme poverty line.

It also recommended that systems look out for women and incorporate them into the workforce, investing 1% of the annual GDP into a digital basic basket, negotiating public expenditure with active tax policies, and rethinking social security systems.

“Finding diverse and inclusive responses to the pandemic or any other emergency situation is key in order to move towards social equality,” Elena Gentili, director of the Oxfam office in Cuba, argues.

As part of a series of initiatives to deal with the pandemic in a resilient way, the NGO has written up a Training Manual with an inclusive and gender-focus in the response to health emergencies such as COVID-19.

This manual is the result of the Ponte Alerta project in its fight against COVID-19, promoted by a consortium which, in addition to Oxfam, includes the NGO Humanity and Inclusion, the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment’s Environmental Agency, and the Environmental Services Center in the western Cuban province of Matanzas, as well as other national and local stakeholders.

The project has tools to incorporate a gender-focus in comprehensive risk management, to fully include people in a vulnerable position, such as women, the disabled and the elderly, while tackling the pandemic.

Furthermore, the organization has proposed that Cuban authorities apply a cross-sectional focus to public policies, risk analysis and other responses to COVID-19, as well as to the economic reform strategy that is currently underway on the island.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.