In February 2021, Aruká Juma, the last remaining member of the Indigenous Juma people, died from Covid-19 complications. Having survived displacement from his tribal lands and the extermination of his people, he finally succumbed to the pandemic that spread rapidly through Brazil’s Indigenous communities.
Similar scenes unfurled across much of Latin America and the Caribbean: the virus spreading like wildfire and affecting the most vulnerable because governments did not do enough to protect them. As Amnesty International and the Center for Economic and Social Rights noted in the report “Unequal and Lethal” last month, the region has accounted for almost a third of the global deaths from Covid-19, despite only representing about 8% of the world’s population.
Of course, it is far from the only region to have been ravaged by the pandemic and rampant inequalities. Leaders all over the world have failed to deliver on promises to “build back better” or oversee a “global reset” of the economy, thus entrenching the systemic inequalities that have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic – instead of reducing them.
But as the world’s most unequal region, the devastation in Latin America and the Caribbean has been particularly pronounced. Structural inequalities and systemic discrimination have afflicted the region for far too long, with the richest 1% holding almost a quarter of total income, while the poorest 20% hold less than 5%. The pandemic has further jeopardized access to economic and social rights, including the right to health and a decent standard of living, with an additional 16 million people falling into extreme poverty in the region in the last two years.
Deeply ingrained and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, mean that certain groups who have been historically and systematically denied their rights have also borne the brunt of the pandemic. Women are enduring the worst part of the labor crisis that has left millions without means of subsistence: besides having more precarious jobs without social security, many women have also had to undertake significantly more unpaid care and domestic work due to the closure of schools and other spaces. Meanwhile, in the face of decades of negligence from the region’s governments to provide essential, culturally acceptable health services, Indigenous peoples have had to resort to community-based solutions to protect themselves from the health and social crises.
Being born with a certain skin colour or growing up in a particular postcode should not condemn you to a life of poverty or determine your chances of dying from Covid. Overturning the legacy of hundreds of years of colonial injustices is not a simple task, but governments can take an important step towards equality through more progressive taxation models and guaranteeing universal access to health care.
Being born with a certain skin colour or growing up in a particular postcode should not condemn you to a life of poverty or determine your chances of dying from CovidAgnes Callamard and Erika Guevara-Rosas
According to the Pan American Health Organization, states must invest at least 6% of GDP in health to achieve universal coverage. Besides Uruguay and Argentina, none of the other 15 countries analysed in “Unequal and Lethal” achieve this minimum. As a result, more than a third of total health expenditure in the region comes from out-of-pocket expenditure from households. For millions of people, a serious disease or health-related problem could endanger their livelihood and push them to the brink 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 rate of deaths per capita from Covid-19 – one in five people have paid bribes in hospitals and clinics to receive treatment.
Most countries will not be able to fulfil their obligations on social and economic rights without major tax reforms to fund their policies. Taxes – and the accountability that must come with them – are crucial to providing the tools for governments to respect, protect and guarantee human rights.
According to international law, states must seek the maximum available resources to gradually achieve the full realization of economic and social rights. Yet, on average, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean collect just 18% of their GDP in taxes, compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s average of 33%. Moreover, a significant proportion of this this already relatively low revenue comes from regressive indirect taxes, such as value-added tax, which disproportionately impact poorer sectors of the population.
Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that in much of the region fiscal policy does little or nothing to lessen income inequality. A bolder, fairer approach to taxation would not only enable Latin America and the Caribbean to redress the socioeconomic crises that devastate those who are most vulnerable; it would also provide a pathway out of the health crisis that has gripped the region and futureproof it against future catastrophes.
Every crisis brings an opportunity for change. Last year should have been a time of healing and recuperation all over the world. Instead, through government inaction, it became 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 that is rights based, inclusive and fair, and address the structural inequality hurting the region. Decisive actions are urgently needed. Not empty slogans.
Agnes Callamard is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. Erika Guevara-Rosas is Americas Director at Amnesty International.