Americas: Pandemic deepens decades of inequality, neglect and abuse in region worst hit by COVID-19

COVID-19 has laid bare and exacerbated the systemic inequality, widespread repression and destructive policies that contributed to the Americas becoming the region worst affected by the pandemic, Amnesty International said today upon publishing its annual report.

In the Americas, Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights documents how women, refugees, migrants, under-protected health workers, Indigenous Peoples, Black people and other groups historically forgotten by governments have borne the brunt of the pandemic, while some leaders have exploited the crisis to ramp up their assault on human rights.

“Over the last year we’ve witnessed certain leaders in the Americas respond to the pandemic with a mixture of denial, opportunism and contempt for human rights. We cannot continue down the road to ruin, repeating the mistakes that left the region ravaged by inequality, discrimination and destruction, even before COVID-19 struck,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The governments of the Americas must rebuild the region into one grounded in fairness, compassion and humanity

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

The Americas has been the region worst hit by COVID-19, with over 54 million cases and 1.3 million deaths. The USA, Brazil and Mexico have the world’s highest absolute death tolls, after their governments, along with those of Nicaragua and Venezuela, issued confused health messages, failed to implement policies to protect those most at risk, or failed to ensure full transparency.

“The governments of the Americas must rebuild the region into one grounded in fairness, compassion and humanity. The first step towards this is to prioritize the needs of those left behind by decades of abandonment and divisive policies and guarantee their access to COVID-19 vaccines. They must also take bold and comprehensive measures to address the disproportionate social and economic effects of the pandemic on people who have been historically discriminated against, to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to live in safety and enjoy their human rights,”  said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

The Americas began 2020 as the world’s most unequal region and this only worsened under the pandemic, with an additional 22 million people falling into poverty, while the number living in extreme poverty grew by 8 million. COVID-19 hit the region’s vast informal economy hard, while government measures frequently undermined the social, economic and cultural rights of those in the most precarious situations.

At least 10,558 health workers across the Americas had died from COVID-19 as of 5 March 2021, with health professionals in almost every country complaining about their governments’ failure to provide safe working conditions and sufficient personal protective equipment. Those who spoke out sometimes faced sanctions, as in Nicaragua, where at at least 31 health workers were dismissed after expressing their concerns.

Arbitrary arrests were common and often linked to the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, with some countries forcibly quarantining people in state-run centers that failed to meet sanitary and physical distancing standards. As people continued to flee violence, poverty and the effects of the climate crisis, several governments detained refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in conditions that left them at high risk of contracting COVID-19, while others forcibly returned people without proper consideration of their asylum claims.

Under the pretext of public health measures, US authorities summarily detained and deported almost all asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border, expelling over half a million migrants and asylum seekers from March 2020 through February 2021, including over 13,000 unaccompanied children as of November 2020.

Poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding were features of many of the region’s prisons, with inadequate state measures denying inmates their right to health and exposing them to COVID-19. There were at least 90 prison riots across the region protesting precarious conditions as concern about the pandemic grew between March and May.

COVID-19 restrictions also impacted freedom of expression, which remained under threat in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Uruguay, Venezuela and Mexico, which was the world’s deadliest country for journalists in 2020. Rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly were also denied or unduly restricted by the police or military, with unlawful use of force recorded in more than a dozen countries.

Racial injustice and discrimination persisted, with the killing of George Floyd leading millions of people in the USA to join the Black Lives Matter protests. US police violently repressed those protests and failed to protect peaceful demonstrators from violent counter-protesters. Elsewhere, police violence in Brazil escalated during the pandemic, with at least 3,181 people – 79% of them Black – killed by police between January and June. Impunity and a lack of access to justice remained a serious concern in much of the region.

The pandemic intensified the crisis of violence against women and girls across the Americas, with lockdown measures leading to a marked increase in domestic violence, rape and femicide. Measures to protect women and girls were inadequate throughout the region and investigations into cases of gender-based violence were often inadequate and insufficient. 

Many governments have not done enough to prioritize sexual and reproductive health as essential services during the pandemic. Abortion remained criminalized in most countries, posing a serious obstacle to the right to health. The Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua still have total bans on abortion, while 18 women remained in jail on charges related to obstetric emergencies in El Salvador.

LGBTI people were the targets of violence and killings in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and the USA. At least 287 trans and gender-diverse people were killed in the continent last year.

Indigenous Peoples were heavily affected by COVID-19 because of inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, health services, social benefits, and a lack of culturally appropriate mechanisms to protect their rights to health and livelihoods. Moreover, several countries declared mining an essential sector during the pandemic, exposing Indigenous Peoples to contagion. Indigenous Peoples’ rights remained under threat, with many governments failing to ensure their free, prior and informed consent before greenlighting major extractive, agricultural and infrastructure projects that affect them.

We draw strength from the passion and resilience that we have witnessed from activists across the region, especially from women, young people and anti-racist activists. Their courage in the face of adversity shows us that we can create a more just world for everyone

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Latin America and the Caribbean continued to be the most dangerous region for human rights defenders, especially those working to defend their land, territory and the environment, and Colombia remained the world’s most lethal country for defenders. Nonetheless, 2020 also brought cause for hope, with human rights defenders achieving great victories and refusing to be silenced.

Argentina made history in December by becoming the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion, thanks to a sustained campaign by a vibrant feminist movement. In November, Mexico became the 11th country in Latin America and the Caribbean to ratify the Escazú Agreement, an unprecedented regional treaty for the protection of the environment and environmental defenders, meaning it will come into effect on 22 April 2021. And although action on climate change remained limited across the continent, Chile became the first country in the region, and one of the first in the world, to submit a 2030 emission reduction target.

“While the first year of the pandemic has been particularly difficult for the Americas, we draw strength from the passion and resilience that we have witnessed from activists across the region, especially from women, young people and anti-racist activists. Their courage in the face of adversity shows us that we can create a more just world for everyone,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Amnesty International press office:  [email protected]