Inequality fuels COVID death rates across Latin America: Report

New report finds ‘staggering inequality’ the core factor behind disproportionate COVID-19 death rates in region.

A woman walks by graffiti that reads, 'Social distance' in Santiago, Chile
Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for nearly a third of global COVID-19 deaths between 2020 and February 2022, despite being home to only 8.4 percent of the world's population, new report by Amnesty International and the Center for Economic and Social Rights finds [File: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Santiago, Chile – Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is the root cause of the region’s high COVID-19 mortality rates, a joint report by Amnesty International and the Center for Economic and Social Rights has found.

Examining statistics from the start of the pandemic in 2020 until February of this year, the report released on Wednesday revealed that more than 1.6 million people in Latin America died from COVID-19-related causes.

That would mean that Latin America accounted for nearly a third (28 percent) of total COVID-19 deaths – despite only 8.4 percent of the world’s population living in the region.

“The mortality rates from COVID-19 are high across the world, but in Latin America, the numbers are disproportionate compared to the population,” Amnesty researcher Diego Vazquez told Al Jazeera.

The report cites “staggering inequality” as a core reason behind the death rates, alongside low public health spending, meagre social security and historically low taxes.

Among the 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries mentioned, Peru had the highest mortality rates per capita, with poverty and pre-existing health conditions cited as primary reasons. In Brazil, racial discrimination and lack of access to health facilities for minority groups and Indigenous people were singled out as the core factors.

A woman visits a grave at a cemetery in Peru
A woman visits a grave in Pisco, Peru, May 9, 2021 [File: Alessandro Cinque/Reuters]

While there is no “one size fits all” solution, the report highlighted inequality as a common “human rights crisis” in the region that must be addressed urgently to avoid repeating the scenario.

In Chile, one of the most prosperous countries in the region, Amnesty highlighted the pitfalls of the country’s largely privatised healthcare system, which is exclusive to those who can afford it.

“In Chile, 20 percent of the country’s richest have 10 times more than its poorest, which is terrible,” said Vazquez, highlighting that Chile held the sixth-highest COVID-19 deaths rate per capita behind Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Mexico.

“For the resources Chile has, the results are not what you would expect,” he said.

Orlando Cortes lives in an impoverished neighbourhood in Lo Espejo, a district on the outskirts of the Chilean capital Santiago. He describes the area as a “red zone” rife with unemployment, lack of education, and high crime rates related to narco-trafficking.

During the pandemic, Cortes turned his home into a soup kitchen to distribute meals to dozens of his struggling neighbours. “We have no health rights here, we live a different reality,” he said, referring to high rates of COVID-19 deaths in the area. Cortes lost his brother to the virus last year, a moment which he recalled as abrupt and painful.

“We get no help from the government. We’ve had to help each other if one of us is sick,” he said.

On Monday, Amnesty presented the report to health officials from Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s administration, noting the government’s commitment to human rights.

A left-wing millennial who took office in March, Boric’s electoral promises include overhauling privatised sectors and increasing public spending. Earlier this month, the government confirmed plans to raise the minimum wage from $424 (350,000 pesos) to $496 (400,000 pesos) as part of a $3.7bn post-pandemic economic recovery plan.

Boric’s presidential agenda additionally maps out drastic reforms to Chile’s health sector, establishing a universal healthcare service and “strongly regulating” private prices.

However, Bank of America cautioned that spiralling inflation rates will be a core obstacle for Boric’s reform ambitions.

Meanwhile, Amnesty’s report urged Chile to increase public healthcare spending from 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to at least 6 percent. “It is difficult,” acknowledged Vazquez. “These are long-term objectives that will not be achieved overnight.”

Source: Al Jazeera