America: Disproportionate deaths from Covid are a result of pre-existing inequalities

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Human rights-based economic policies are urgently needed to change course

Governments across Latin America and the Caribbean urgently need to increase spending on the right to social protection and health to tackle the region’s obscene socioeconomic inequality, which has proved fatal during the Covid pandemic, Amnesty International and the Center for said Economic and Social Rights (CESR) in a new joint report released today.

Unequal and Deadly: Five Key Actions to Overcome the Human Rights Crisis Sparked by the Pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean explains the factors behind the disproportionate death toll in the region from Covid compared to other parts of the world. With just 8.4% of the world’s population, the region has suffered 28% of all global deaths from COVID-19. The report finds that the countries with the greatest inequality and the lowest public spending on health and social protection have suffered the most from the pandemic, with the most devastating impact on historically excluded groups.

A human rights-based rethinking of economic policy is the key to avoiding future disasters in what is in many ways the most unequal region in the world. Despite the staggering levels of inequality and poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, governments have failed over the past few decades, even during boom times, to collect sufficient tax revenues and to do so in ways that fight inequality. This has inevitably led to meager spending on health services and social protection – including unemployment, pensions and childcare support – which are vital to living in dignity and true respect for human rights for all.

“Governments have a duty to proactively mobilize the resources needed to protect their people from the worst effects of discrimination, disease and economic disaster. If Latin American countries had done this in the decades leading up to the pandemic, the region could have avoided so much suffering and death,” said Kate Donald, acting Executive Director of CESR. “Now is their chance to prevent the next inequality-driven disaster and make the transition to a rights-based economy.”

Countries like Mexico, Brazil and Peru, where the richest 1% of the population hoards over 30% of the national wealth, have recorded the highest number of Covid deaths in the region in proportion to their population. Chile, where the richest 20% of the population take home ten times more income than the poorest 20%, also has one of the highest per capita mortality rates in the region.

Governments have an obligation to proactively mobilize the resources needed to protect their people from the worst effects of discrimination, disease and economic disaster

Kate Donald, Acting Executive Director of CESR

While many Latin American countries provided cash transfers during the pandemic, none expanded health insurance and failed to take sufficient action to implement universal social security mechanisms and expand coverage to ensure the most vulnerable are covered.

The impact of these deficiencies across the region has hit women hardest, with more job losses than men, and whose disproportionate role in caring for children and families continues to affect their unequal rights perceptions – even more so if they are indigenous or of African descent.

“Being born a certain skin color or growing up in a certain postcode shouldn’t determine your chances of dying from infectious diseases like Covid. Two years after the pandemic, governments in Latin America still fail to recognize the urgency of implementing a human rights-based approach to recovering from the pandemic and tackling inequality,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“Promoting equality does not mean treating everyone equally. Latin America’s current situation is the result of hundreds of years of colonial injustices that have historically and systematically denied certain groups their rights. As countries recover from the pandemic, governments must address this head-on by taking a substantive equality approach and positive action.”

Although the Pan American Health Organization calls for at least 6% of GDP to be spent on health to ensure universal coverage, nearly all countries in the region spend far less on public health services, meaning they don’t have enough hospital beds, doctors or nurses to effectively deal with Covid-19 or other health crises. In Peru, for example, in the decade leading up to the pandemic, authorities failed to increase public health spending despite years of sustained economic growth, investing just 3.3% of GDP. Meanwhile, in Mexico, over 15 million people lost access to health insurance in the two years leading up to the pandemic due to bureaucratic inefficiencies in government health policies.

In Chile, taxes and social security contributions account for only half of health care expenditures, while the other half is met by patients through mandatory upfront fees and voluntary out-of-pocket expenses. Chile’s per capita public expenditure on health is only a third of the OECD average, and there are only half the number of hospital beds per 1,000 population as the OECD average.

“Being born a certain skin color or growing up in a certain postcode shouldn’t determine your chances of dying from infectious diseases like Covid

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

Even when they have adequate strategies in theory, governments stumble in implementation, with a major obstacle often being their failure to generate sufficient fiscal resources to make them effective. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean generally collect less tax revenue than others of similar levels of development in different parts of the world. In 2019, the region collected on average just 22% of its GDP from taxes, compared to 33% in OECD countries.

In addition, many have regressive tax systems, with taxes that do not ask enough of those who can pay the most, undermining their resources to overcome inequality and redistribute wealth. For example, Latin American countries depend heavily on indirect taxes—which are more regressive because they place a heavier burden on poorer sections of the population—and collect very little from wealth taxes aimed at the business elite.

“Without boldly confronting the need to tax more and better – as is their human rights obligation – countries in Latin America will continue to be swept away by a malaise of socioeconomic inequality that favors a wealthy elite and harms society as a whole. ‘ said Kate Donald.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Duncan Tucker (Amnesty International): [email protected]

Auska Ovando (CESR): [email protected]

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