This is the Latin American reality.
Recently I had the chance to interview Andrea, a mother who heads up a household of three children, of whom two are disabled. Displaced by the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, the family now find themselves in Bello, a town in the suburbs of Medellin, the capital of the municipality of Antioquia. At only 27 years old, Andrea persists in a situation of extreme poverty – in an economic sense, at least, for this poverty is not reflected in her personality whatsoever. On the contrary, she is a fighter, rich in human resources if not in material ones. Yet the reality behind this story, especially in the midst of a pandemic, is perhaps a very different one to that of those who are reading this article. Hers unfolds in a room she shares with her three children, without any comfort and at times, not even enough food to; something she attests to herself – “there are days I manage to get us something to eat – other days I don’t, when all we can do is drink water”.
The reality Andrea lives, like that of many thousands in Latin America and others in situations of economic vulnerability across the world, means that her perception of how to deal with the pandemic is very different. For her and people like her, having to confront the fear of death is not a recent development, but a constant in everyday life. Not because of the latest viral threat, but an even more terrible affliction that affects the everyday human experience of so many: hunger. It is a hunger that in turn feeds fears of whether or not there will be sufficient resources to fill all the mouths that cry out for food.
For Andrea, quarantine does not exist – not for a lack of consciousness about what is happening, nor any degree of irresponsibility, but for the purpose of sheer survival. If she does not leave everyday in order to search for whatever informal work (scavenging and rummaging, mostly, she admits) is available, her and her children are at risk of starvation. Without this informal work, upon which around half of the population of Latin America rely on for subsistence, she, her family and others like them would be left without any resources to confront the current pandemic situation.
This is the reality for those who live in extreme poverty, who according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean constitute 10.3% of the continent, at just shy of 63 million people. Now we must ask, what can governments do to confront this reality, especially considering that so many find themselves languishing in informality? Perhaps, as seen in various forms around the world, the answer is to hand out grants or bonds – subsidisation rendered even more necessary in the current climate. Indeed, the Colombian government recently announced their intention to distribute a ‘solidarity income’ of 160,000 pesos (approximately a quarter of the minimum wage), approximate to £32, to help this specific sector of the population.
However, the disconcerting truth appears to be that these subsidies have reached very few vulnerable families; reports of grants appearing in the wrong bank accounts, not at all, and even being paid out to already deceased citizens. All this is indicative of a general fraudulency and corruption for which the government is responsible, a common occurrence in Latin America. In Andrea’s case, her name did not appear on the list of beneficiaries, and as such was not able to take advantage of this supposed help from the government.
So again we ask, where is the Latino American future headed, such corruption considered? Whilst each one of us worries after our own destiny, we risk forgetting those who are having the hardest time of all, like Andrea; people who the government are incapable of protecting, let alone providing with a functioning health system, or support for the basics of everyday life. These are the very people that our media neglect to mention, yet are most at risk from this pandemic. They do not enjoy the luxury of social distancing, for they must leave their homes in order to survive and feed their families, risking their lives in the process. The sad Latin American reality is that 76.8% of the continent’s populace are in either the low or medium-low income band (meaning that the vast majority earn below the minimum wage) whilst those considered to enjoy a high income level constitute a mere 3% (UNECLAC, 2018). The UN report concluded that the eradication of such high levels of poverty would only be made possible by policies of social and labour inclusion aimed at guaranteeing good quality jobs.
Latin America lives in a world of overwhelming corruption, where the continued existence of a deeply entrenched social order that renders the idea of fair pay as fantasy; it is members of congress, politicians and others in positions of public authority (those who have historically engaged in what amounts to state-sanctioned robbery) who enjoy salaries in the millions, while the areas of health, education, and other sectors vital for the successful functioning of society, are starved of funding in the majority of cases.
In times of crisis, we ought to take note of such injustices; only now do many realise it is the doctors and cleaners who were indispensable all along. Unlike the myriad of public administrators and bureaucrats more concerned with the size of their own wallets than the size of their department budgets. The coronavirus crisis, and the socio-economic disparity of its consequences, will surely now expose this dire reality. But to change the state of play in Latin America, we must be unrelenting in demanding a new social settlement that values all citizens and the entire social fabric, free from the corruption and exploitation that has blighted the continent for centuries. Only then might the bleeding from the open veins of Latin America be stopped.
What will happen to Andrea and to those in situations like hers? What will happen when they run out of food to eat? What must be done as a society in order to rectify these injustices? What future awaits Latin America in a new global order post-coronavirus?
-All my respect and admiration for women and people like Andrea who represent the soul of Latin America, who fight every day of their lives to feed and provide a better future for their families amidst any storm, and yet never stop smiling… you are the silent heroes, so thank you for not giving up, and for embodying that paradoxical yet ever-admirable Latin American beauty.
We are a whole; if a part is broken or malfunctioning, the system risks the misfortune of breaking and destroying itself forever.
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