28 Apr 2020 : Nudging will not redress the inequalities of COVID-19 in Latin America

By Professor Pia Riggirozzi

Since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in January 2020 the disease has killed about 200,000 people worldwide (as of 28 April 2020). In this same period, Oxfam reports that over 900 thousand people died from other causes due to lack of access to health care, amongst other socio-political and economic determinants. Poverty is as lethal than the virus; or more…

We know that the coronavirus will have devastating effects on the world economy, certainly more intense and different from those experienced during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, and this will negatively affect Latin America and the Caribbean, already the most unequal region in the planet. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Latin America will see 5.3% decrease in the region’s GDP,  the worst in its history since the Great Depression in the 1920s. It is also expected that this retraction will push up the number of poor people in the region, from the current 185 million to about 220 million, out of a total of 620 million inhabitants. Likewise, the number of people living in extreme poverty would rise from 67.4 million to 90 million. unemployment rate would be around 11.5%, which implies an increase of 3.4% compared to 2019. Adding to this bleak situation, unemployment is expected to affect 37.7 million people, 11.6 million more than last year.

Not surprisingly, across Latin America, the poorest see the pandemic with more fear of poverty and hunger than the virus. Certainly, we have learned from previous pandemics like Ebola Zika and swine flu or Influenza A that pandemics exacerbate almost all forms of social injustice and that inadequate political responses leave legacies that can be as severe as the disease itself. How will the region face the epidemic with a predicted increase of 34% of its population living in poverty and 11% in extreme poverty?

COVID-19 reveals and deepens three challenges in Latin America. There is an immediate health challenges (in weak or weakened states) with fragile health systems. There is also medium and long-term challenges related to fighting poverty, socioeconomic and gender inequalities and inequities, as well as job insecurity. The challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean is not only to contain the spread of the virus, but to address the living conditions of its citizens, many of them with informal jobs, that in confinement means not even accessing to any social protection, income and labour rights – also many of them women, as they are more likely to work in the informal economy with little or no employment rights. Finally, there is a challenge of financing social policies in the context of falling activity and taxes while additional spending needs associated with short and long-term medical and social needs will increase.

These are extraordinary threats. Whatever it takes to address them should lead to inclusive policies and resources from governments, multilateral organisations and philanthropies to redress structurally inequalities and long term vulnerabilities within and across societies. For this will be imperative to increase coverage through cash transfer programmes but also the introduction of emergency employment programmes, to create job opportunities for those displaced from formal sector and to absorb those in informality, as well as health, sanitation, and housing policies. This will also require to move away from the already very problematic, popularised and normalised politics of nudging. Incorporating nudges into COVID approaches and communication is not only unrealistic in many situations in developing countries but also insulting. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t shake hands with others, stay at home, do home schooling (again, a burden that disproportionately fall on women) do not work where many have no access to water, sanitary conditions, leave in crowded slams or semi-urbanisation where it is difficult to ensure physical space, and have no access to internet or to education. This is not just a health crisis, controlling the pandemic is about taking full account of long-term gendered development needs and human rights to redress inequalities and cycles of deprivation and exclusion.

 

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