The virus is uncovering the extent of inequalities within many countries, including OECD countries. In the process, it is exposing the deficiencies of the social contract and the ways in which slum dwellers are systematically at-risk. COVID-19 lays open the social and economic fault lines in our urban spaces among the 1.2 billion urban poor who live in informal slums and shanty-towns everywhere.
The poor are forgotten. They are invisible. Overlooked. Ignoring the poor is an active and purposeful project. The war on poverty is forgotten and deliberately misremembered as a failure that should be forgotten. And those to whom the poor remain undisclosed live their lives in bad faith. The poor stretch their hands across the pew hoping for consolation. But the opulent are indifferent to the rough palms that prayerfully clasp their soft empty hands. They continue whispering their hymns. They deceive themselves. It is easier. It is a purposeful forgetting that limits what they can do. Observing the comportment of the police in some parts of England, former supreme court justice, Lord Sumption, warned that the conduct of the police risks plunging Britain into a ‘police state.’
Long before the COVID-19 reached Manila, San Roque slum dwellers had a saying — ‘no one dies from a fever’ — rather the peril was from drug-fuelled petty crime, food shortages and poor sanitation. Fevers and coughs were ordinary — long before COVID-19 came. In Kenya, over 7,000 people were forcibly evicted from the slums in Nairobi as others rioted over bread.
But we don’t have to stare beyond Latin America and the Caribbean for proof of the destructive power that extreme inequality has on sustainable patterns of growth and social cohesiveness. Latin America and the Caribbean remains the most unequal place on earth according to the UNDP. To face up to protests, the region must attend to inequality in income and education. With poor sanitation and shambolic health facilities – humans struggle against the highly infectious virus.
The large informal labour sector and inadequate government welfare make COVID-19 quarantine unaffordable to the underprivileged – even when they are ill. They have lost their grip on life, living in hopeless poverty and the wretchedness of Columbus’s New World promise of paradise. The true scale of the virus’ spread in the region is likely much worse than reported as many countries have failed to implement rigorous testing programs for practical or ideological reasons. This is the shared plight of 654 million people living in the region.
From Argentina to Mexico, approximately one in five of Latin America’s urban population lives in a slum like Cité Soleil. With no running water, the barrack yard dwellers in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince metropolitan area find it impossible to self-isolate in overcrowded huts. Many of the infected are living in denial. The invincible who take no precautions have faith in bush-bath distillations of Candle Bush and roasted Calabash. Others rely solely on Voodoo priests who treat their afflictions in temples. Both the invincible and the infected arrive at the hospital far too late. By then – they are already critically ill.
In Haiti, with a population of around 11 million, the spread has outpaced its testing capacity. The situation in Haiti is extreme. But healthcare coverage throughout much of Latin America and the Caribbean remains patchy making the poor mistrustful. There is nothing to clap about. The poor are reluctant to seek treatment distorting the data on infections, hospitalizations, recoveries and deaths. The truth is inside the morgue, the funeral parlours, death certificates and the sleepwalkers in the Voodoo grave yards.
Given very low levels of testing across the region – the most worrying aspect is not the number of confirmed cases but the high levels of mortality. Latin America has just 8% of the world’s population but it is now accounting for 45% of daily deaths. On its present trajectory, if restrictions are relaxed further, the COVID-19 death toll could climb to 340,476 in Brazil and 151,433 in Mexico by October 2020. With confirmed COVID-19 cases globally hitting the 10.6 million mark, the region accounts for around 25 per cent of those. What has aided the region is its young population. Less than 9% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean — and just 4.5 % in Haiti — is aged 65 and above. That compares with 20% in the EU and 16% in North America.
Sixty per cent of Haitians live below the poverty line. Desperation has set in as chaotic scenes unfold outside vans delivering bread. The poor are doomed to shove in a crowd for food. What is left for them living under this immense pressure of emptiness but to decant their lives into deeper despair and to disown their own freedom and act inauthentically.
Many Haitians see the government as fake and the virus as an excuse to harvest funding that will never fall at the feet of the unfortunate. High levels of income and wealth inequality in the region have stymied sustainable growth and social inclusion. Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is preventing a return to an inclusive growth trajectory in the face of daunting external conditions.