- By Emily Gregg, with additional material from Peru & Haiti Support Groups UK and LAB correspondents in the region.
- LAB has put together this sixth overview of the spread of coronavirus across the region and the reaction of governments, politicians and local communities. With our limited resources we could not hope to provide a truly comprehensive survey.
- Figures for infections and mortality, summarised in the table at the end, are those given by the World Health Organisation Situation Report 105 on Monday 4 May. Where figures appear in the images within the article, they may refer to earlier dates.
- LAB will attempt to follow up this story, focusing on the poor, marginal communities, indigenous groups and inequalities in treatment and economic compensation for the effects of this terrible pandemic on individuals and families.
- See LAB articles at the head of our Home Page and in the Covid-19 section for further news, testimony & information. See also the posts on our Facebook page.
As Latin America approaches two months of Coronavirus, human rights issues that have been a concern since the start – how the poor will cope, the impact on indigenous groups, and domestic violence – have been brought to light as the UN published various reports on Wednesday and national and regional groups have made appeals to supranational bodies.
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The drastic drop in oil prices since the world went into lockdown threatens the future of a fracking project in Argentina’s Vaca Muerte oil and gas fields in Patagonia, land which the Mapuche community claim is theirs, stolen from them and contaminated. The International Monetary Fund, who have been involved in Argentina’s economy since the 1990s, had pushed the project as a means for the country to become more energy self-sufficient and to earn foreign currency.
The project was under threat before the pandemic. Alongside logistical complications that made the difficult less sustainable, international pressure to move away from fossil fuels led the IMF has forced Argentina to cut subsidies for the project. However, the Minister of Productive Development, Matías Kulfas, said the Vaca Muerta was “an issue that will have to wait” until the crisis ends. It is unclear what the end of the project would mean for the Mapuche, who have staged fierce opposition against the project.
In Venezuela, the government has lifted a ban on gold and diamond mining activity in 6 Amazonian rivers, despite the probability of spreading coronavirus further and long-standing environmental concerns. Mining had taken place illegally before the ban was lifted, and is believed to have brought malaria and measles epidemics to a region inhabited by nine indigenous groups. While the use of mercury is prohibited, this is largely ignored by artisan miners in the region.
The lifting of the ban has raised concerns now that the rate of mining will increase, contaminating the environment and forcing indigenous communities to abandon their cultures and join the industry. This appears to be a desperate attempt to generate income for the country in the midst of an economic crisis, US economic sanctions, and the fall of oil prices. Opposition parties condemned the measure.
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Human Rights Complaints
Mining and extractive activity also continues in and near indigenous territories in Peru. It is just one complaint of many published in a declaration signed by 225 international organisations. The declaration is an appeal to governments and supranational organisations including the UN, World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), concerning the treatment of indigenous groups in Peru with regards to coronavirus.
The report also highlights the lack of medical support, policies that are inappropriate for indigenous communities and not communicated in indigenous languages, and the lack of support for the suggestions of indigenous leaders.
Last Thursday, the webpage of the Interethnic Association of the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), published a document denouncing the Peruvian state for marginalising the indigenous communities in their plans to combat Coronavirus. The President of the Association said that the government’s announcements only refer to what they will do in the cities, and not in the indigenous villages. Indigenous groups enforced quarantines earlier than the rest of the country due to the greater risk Coronavirus poses to them. However, unable to leave, they have run out of food and cleaning products including soap [see our 16 April update]. The nearest hospital has collapsed, and the community is not receiving medication. The Association has issued a formal complaint against the Peruvian State to the UN, warning that the government’s lack of action could result in ethnocide.
El Salvador: the government’s approach to the Covid-19 emergency has raised concerns from the start. The country has some of the harshest restriction measures of the Americas and carriers of the virus – note not the virus itself – have been designated an “enemy within”. Six hundred and seven people were detained and put into cells within the first three days after a state of emergency was declared.
President Nayib Bukele had also suggested that security forces could “do some arm-twisting”, implying permission to use arbitrary action to contain the virus. The Supreme Court of Justice later released an addendum to clarify that the security forces did not in fact have authorisation to make arbitrary arrests nor cause unjustifiable injury in response to a petition by various NGOs.
As well as explicitly giving permission to security forces to use “lethal force” if there is a threat to life, photos were published, and celebrated by the President himself on social media, of prisoners stripped to underwear and forced to sit in extremely close proximity despite the risk of infection by the virus with legs either side of the person in front. Members of different gangs are also to be mixed amongst prisons to minimise coordination and sealed in cells without “even a ray of sunlight”.
However, this week Bukele’s more hard-line approach to organised crime and gangs has come into play with Coronavirus. This follows an increase in murders from 24-26 April, which totalled 23 across the country on Friday and 10 more in the eastern region over the weekend. It is believed that the killings were ordered from within El Salvador’s prisons, in which gangs were kept separately.
Brazil: Last Tuesday (28 April), President Jair Bolsonaro shrugged off the news of the record high 474 deaths in one day in the country. He responded, ‘So what? . . . What do you want me to do?’ Coincidentally, the next day UN human rights rapporteurs published a declaration that described Brazil’s economic and social policies as ‘irresponsible’, due to President Bolsonaro’s continued failure to recognise the severity of the virus and take measures accordingly.
The political economy secretary for the Ministry of the Economy defended the national Government’s stance, claiming that 4.1% of GDP is being spent to fight against Covid-19, and calling for ‘Respect’.
Health care systems collapse
The Guardian reported last week that, facing over 100 deaths a day, the authorities in Manaus (around 1300km west of Belém in the Amazonas state) are overwhelmed. Burials are being carried out overnight to give more time for the large numbers and authorities expect to run out of coffins by this weekend. Mass graves were being used in which the dead were stacked three coffins high until protests by mourning families halted the practice. Ambulances are left roaming for hours to find a hospital with space for patients and a video has circulated showing the corridors within the hospitals lined with body bags. While environmental reasons and longer-term funding shortages are believed to be a major factor in the catastrophe the region is experiencing, many see corruption and the government’s slow response as key: a state of emergency was not declared until ten days after the first case was confirmed in the region. The mayor of the city blames Bolsonaro himself for undermining isolation measures.
The rapporteurs also highlighted the 2016 constitutional amendment, which limits public spending for the following 20 years, and hence puts millions of lives at risk. The effects are already being seen. A report by LAB partner Agência Pública explained how the health system has already collapsed in the city of Belém, in the northern state of Pará. The Municipal Health Secretariat showed that all 125 of the ICU beds in the region were occupied, 80% of which were by Covid-19 patients. Families also complained of not receiving updates or information about their ill relatives and there are reports of a lack of medicine and equipment and people fainting in waiting areas. Many patients showing all the symptoms of the virus are left waiting outside hospitals.
Mexico: Health workers including doctors and nurses have been targets of online and physical attacks due to fears that they spread the virus. Others have been banned from their home villages, denied service in restaurants and supermarkets or even forced off public transport.
Economic measures and struggles
Mexico: anti-neoliberal President Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, is being compared to Reagan and Thatcher for cuts introduced to mediate the impact of coronavirus. The cuts include the closing down of 10 government departments, a freeze on hiring, and slashing government salaries by a quarter. However, the president has also suggested loans for households and businesses as well as support for social programs and advanced pension payments. He has pledged to create 2 million more jobs and to continue with mega-projects, although it is unclear how he will do so.
We reported in our 16 April update that inhabitants in some districts of Colombia have begun hanging red rags out of their windows to ask for help. A similar system has been adopted in Guatemala, after being publicised by Guatemalan authorities on social media. There, however, there is a system of waving different coloured flags according to their needs – a white flag signifies a need for food; a red flag signifies is a request for medicine; and a black, yellow or blue flag shows someone is in danger of violence. Poor families have lined up along a highway waving flags in search of aid.
Peru: the government has made plans to introduce a programme which would pay S/. 760 (around US $225) to families outside the formal sector. The Peru Support Group has expressed doubt over the implementation of the bono as some families do not have bank accounts to receive the money and reception of the funds depends on authorities’ identification of the vulnerable. It is estimated that out of approximately 2 million, the bono will reach only 700,000. President Vizcarra, however, also this week rejected the Congress-approved plan to allow pension withdrawals up to 25 percent. Although he praised the idea in a press conference, he stated that he believed the measure to be unjustified and unsustainable.
In its place, he announced that up to S./ 5000 (around US $1480) could be withdrawn from pensions and that there will be a general reform to the pension system, which is based on the controversial Chilean AFP model and of which Vizcarra himself has previously been an outspoken critic. In the meantime, poor Peruvians are left with little choice but to work as street sellers, putting themselves and their families at risk of infection
Peru: 168,000 people, including indigenous people, have asked to return to their towns and villages, finding themselves stuck in the capital Lima and other cities throughout the country after controls on movement were suddenly enforced. Many do not have a means to sustain themselves in the cities and have attempted to return despite emergency measures. There are queues along the Pan-American and Central Highways of people seeking transport home.
The government has attempted to control the migration, but they exceed the government’s capacity to manage the logistics of transport, quarantine shelters and testing. Only 3,579 had received assistance by the 23 April and it is believed that the real number of those seeking to return is much higher than the official figure.
Mexico: migration stations have nearly emptied, according to figures revealed on Sunday. Over the past few weeks, 3,653 migrants have been returned to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The 106 who remain are waiting for results of their asylum requests or a meeting with the authorities.
Coming out of lockdown
Although Latin America (except possibly Costa Rica) is still on the upwards part of the curve, Chilean authorities have announced a plan for coming out of quarantine. They intend to give out passes, called Carnet Covid (Covid identity cards) to those who have recovered from the virus. The Chilean health minister, in another of a what is becoming a series of blunders in terms of the virus, said at the start of April that those who have recovered become immune and are unable to spread the virus.
The WHO has warned against ‘immunity passports’ as there is no evidence that recovering from the infection automatically confers immunity against future infection. The deputy health minister emphasised that the pass is not an immunity card and mentioned that evidence suggests there is a reduced risk of second infection after recovery.
Country by country summary. Case and death figures from WHO Situation Report 105, 4 May 2020.
Reports from some individual governments and unofficial sources suggest considerably higher figures.
Emily Gregg is a LAB correspondent and author. She lived in Arica, Chile, until returning to the UK because of the pandemic, and wrote The Student Revolution chapter in LAB’s book Voices of Latin America (2019).