Cracks in the system widening as COVID-19 response swings from chaos to crackdown.

March 24, 2020 —  The past week has revealed a range of responses in North and Central America to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has put governments and leaders to the test, along with all of society.  We are constantly reminded of our inter-dependence, and how each person’s individual behavior can affect the entire community.

The coming economic recession could hit Latin America particularly hard, as it exposes existing weaknesses in the region’s economies.  The situation in North America and Central America continues to evolve. Despite having relatively few cases, Canada agreed with the United States this week to close the borders and reject asylum seekers who were trying to move from one country to the other.  Mexico and the US entered into similar agreements last week.  Rights defenders decried the preference for commerce over people, as all three countries indicated that commercial transport across the borders would continue, even as they closed borders  for asylum. The civil society-operated shelters in Mexico near the US-Mexico border were already stretched thin from taking care of people waiting their turn to cross the border, as well as Mexicans who are deported, and the many asylum seekers who were waiting for their asylum hearing under the “remain in Mexico” policy.  Now these shelters will confront a new emergency, this time a public health crisis, while still lacking resources or support from the Mexican government.  The Mexican government  has been among the slowest in the region to take measures to contain the virus, fearing their economic impact.

In Central America, the response has varied from country to country.  El Salvador was one of the first countries to impose a state of emergency, limiting constitutional rights, as well as imposing quarantines, along with measures to alleviate some of the economic consequences of the closures. Guatemala has opted for a nighttime curfew, and relatively weak measures that the President argued were justified in order to maintain economic stability.  Civil society organizations rushed to adapt the recommendations to the realities of rural life. Honduras decided to close its borders, announced some economic relief measures and decreed a full curfew between the 20th and 29th of March. Nicaragua, by contrast, has opted to ignore the international recommendations about physical distance, even going so far as to call for mass mobilizations, which prompted civil society organizations to organize a collective response.  

Militarization continues to be the virus-containment strategy of choice for the governments of northern Central American nations.  Guatemala deployed the military to its border with Mexico to deny entry to foreigners, and starting on March 22, launched an eight day national curfew. El Salvador is currently in a home quarantine or “shelter in place” order for 30 days, beginning on March 20.  Salvadorans are only allowed to leave home to get food or medicine.  Both countries have seen a series of arbitrary detentions in the wake of the curfews.  The use of the military to enforce health emergency measures represents a significant risk to democracy.  In contrast, the United States  has also made use of the National Guard, but so far only as support personnel in providing medical services and testing in hard-hit states.

Beyond cataloguing and reflecting on the direct impact of these restrictions and extraordinary actions, the global state of emergency calls us to take a serious look at the fragility of our public systems.  Both healthcare and food security for millions of people are at risk. What should countries be doing to protect the right to health, basic subsistence and dignified conditions for all those who live there?

A pandemic is not just a challenge for public health systems– the social and economic blows are just starting to be felt. Social distancing quickly becomes social isolation, as governments tell people to stay home and work remotely to contain the spread of the virus. And even that isolation is a luxury that most people can hardly afford.  Those who can work from home are the lucky ones, as compared to the rest of the women and men who give up their livelihoods to isolate themselves, or keep working under conditions that put their health at risk.  Healthcare professionals, first responders, care-givers for the elderly, and all those tasked with keeping our towns and cities clean and safe are on the frontlines of the crisis.  This reflects a host of underlying systemic problems including the undervaluing of the care economy and economic inequality. 

The economic consequences of COVID-19 will be felt around the world, but some will feel it immediately and more deeply. Unpaid work, particularly care work, which is still mainly performed by women, will increase dramatically with the closure of schools, and families unable to leave their homes. We have already begun to see signs of the economic recession, which will also have a disproportionate impact on those same workers and on poor people.  That is why any economic stimulus or recovery package should prioritize those who are suffering the most.  Many countries are making proposals and taking steps to respond to the recession caused by COVID-19.  One challenge across Latin America will be to reach the millions of informal workers, who depend on their daily labor for basic sustenance.  The consequences of economic injustice become stark and visible when people have to choose between preventing the spread of contagion or being able to eat. Bringing a gender perspective to the COVID response will also be critical to getting relief and recovery right. 

Anti-immigrant policies have grave consequences in the US

In the midst of a global alert for COVID-19, the United States continues to act irresponsibly in ways that put people’s health at risk, including its insistence on implementing the public charge rule, which many experts warn will keep people from accessing health care for fear of ruining their chance for a visa.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating the impact the public charge rule has on public health, but we don’t need to wait for results to know that guaranteeing universal care is the right thing to do in a pandemic.

Within the immigration detention, processing and hearing process, the spread of COVID-19 is inevitable.  Several reports highlight rampant health risks in detention centers. Prolonged detention coupled with overcrowding increases the possibilities for an outbreak. Recent reports of exposures in detention and deportation expose official negligence and human rights violations.  And yet, despite all the risks, deportations continue. Honduras has tried to impose a quarantine on recently arrived deportees, but many refused to take part. El Salvador announced that it would no longer accept deportees. Alianza Americas is calling for a halt to all migration control efforts that lead to detention, apprehension and deportation, and for extensions for all court appearances. 

The Medical Director of Doctors without Borders recently issued a call to solidarity, urging people to come together to respond to the pandemic.  She called on people to be responsible– to self-isolate, to practice safe physical distance, and to stop hoarding supplies that are desperately needed by health care providers. Her plea invites us to reflect on how we will need to change our lifestyles and priorities in the wake of the pandemic and to rethink our relationship with each other and our shared planet.