The Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena, called on the region’s countries to implement universal, redistributive and solidarity-based policies to avoid another lost decade, during a virtual meeting on the role of Social Development Ministries and equivalent agencies in the face of the crisis that the world and the region are undergoing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first gathering of this kind convened 13 Latin American countries, and the second one will be held with English- and French-speaking Caribbean countries. Both are being organized by the Secretariat of Welfare of Mexico – in its capacity as chair of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Social Development in Latin America and the Caribbean – and ECLAC, as initiatives that seek to foster a space for collaboration and mutual support, sharing both problems and challenges as well as accumulated knowledge, advances, needs, and possible areas for joint work at a regional level.
The meeting was inaugurated by María Luisa Albores, Mexico’s Secretary of Welfare, and Alicia Bárcena, ECLAC’s Executive Secretary. Subsequently, the United Nations regional organization’s most senior representative made a presentation in which she addressed the socioeconomic situation and social protection measures in the region in the context of the current health crisis.
During her remarks, Alicia Bárcena affirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic does not discriminate in terms of infection, but it does do so in terms of its impact and capacity for protection, an area in which the major inequalities in access to health systems in the region are clearly manifested. She specified that social spending on health in Latin America and the Caribbean amounts to 2.2% of GDP, far below the 6% suggested by the World Health Organization.
She added that a conservative estimate accounting for the pandemic’s impact, with data that is still in the process of stabilizing, has led ECLAC to forecast negative growth of -1.8% for the region in 2020, with a very probable downward bias.
ECLAC’s Executive Secretary recalled that even before the spread of COVID-19, the social situation in Latin America and the Caribbean was deteriorating, with an increase in the indices of poverty and extreme poverty, persisting inequalities, and widespread social discontent. In that context, this crisis will have negative repercussions on health and education, as well as on employment and poverty.
She noted that, according to the Social Panorama of Latin America 2019 report, in 2017, 468 million people belonged to lower or middle-lower income strata (below 3 poverty lines), which are those most affected in times of job losses.
Alicia Bárcena sustained that the groups that will bear the brunt of the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 include women and the most disadvantaged populations, such as informal workers; children and adolescents; young people, who have high rates of labor informality; older persons and persons with disabilities; and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.
For that reason, she stated, social protection is key to tackling the health crisis and its socioeconomic effects. “An exceptional situation requires exceptional responses,” the senior United Nations official indicated.
In that scenario, she called for guaranteeing universal access to COVID-19 testing and to medical care; maintaining universal access to basic services (water, energy, telephone and Internet), food and medication; bolstering consumption by broad strata of the population that are very vulnerable to sliding into poverty; guaranteeing temporary cash transfers that are as universal as possible to meet basic needs; and protecting formal employment, since the role of social security is crucial at this time, she noted.
Finally, ECLAC’s highest authority indicated that solidarity and collective responsibility are key to containing and confronting the pandemic, and she warned that the crisis can deepen expressions of discontent, mistrust and democratic disaffection, which constitutes a significant risk to social cohesion.
For that reason, she concluded, “it is urgent that we seek recourse in a social compact centered on people’s well-being and rights to tackle the present and future effects of this crisis, establishing a logic of collective protection and equality, with solidarity-based responses on costs and financing. We have to move towards less unequal and more caring societies, leaving no one behind.”