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By María Belén Noroña, Ph.D
By mid-March of this year at the onset of the pandemic, it was common to hear health experts and media commentators discuss how the novel COVID-19 virus could affect anyone regardless of skin color and socioeconomic status. Many called the virus the great equalizer. After the first weeks of quarantine, many even praised quarantine measures for contributing to a slowdown of pollution as the overall economy took a forced break. Could COVID-19 bring an opportunity amidst the tragic loss of human lives worldwide?
We now know that rather than act as an equalizer, the virus has instead exacerbated social and racial inequality. Social confinement is simply not a privilege that everyone can afford. The latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 154,226 people have died from the pandemic in the U.S (1). Data collected through May by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that Latino and African-American people are three times as likely to become infected, and twice as likely to die compared to whites in the U.S according to New York Times research (2).
The Americas are the current epicenter of the pandemic. According to the WHO, Latin America registered 197,000 Covid-19 deaths by August 3rd(1), a number slightly higher than the number of deaths in the U.S. Marginalized populations have been the most affected, especially people of color. In the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador for example, during the peak of the virus from March 1st to April 15th, 7,600 more people died as compared to average deaths in recent years (3). Circulating throughout newspapers and social media were crude scenes of bodies left on the streets, cardboard coffins stacked by the hundreds in trucks and morgues, and images of hundreds of people waiting outside hospitals trying to recover the bodies of their loved ones. Similar circumstances played out in the urban areas of Peru, especially in its capital Lima where families of low socio-economic status that identify as urban indigenous migrants, and those that share indigenous cultural traits were hit the hardest.
The disproportionate loss of life of ethnic minority and under-privileged populations in cities like Guayaquil and Lima are explained by structural inequalities in our capitalist system of profit accumulation. According to experts such as Anibal Quijano, capitalism has organized society in various hierarchies, placing people of color and natural resources at the bottom (4). Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies further explain that this hierarchy normalizes both the exploitation of labor of people of color and the exploitation of natural resources (5). According to recent research on the socioeconomic conditions that exacerbate the pandemic, the most vulnerable are usually migrant workers, people of color, and indigenous populations. These populations frequently cannot afford to stay at home, are forced to continue to work during the pandemic, cannot afford better living conditions, live in cramped spaces, and lack access to safety networks (6). For the most vulnerable in society, the pandemic is a lose-lose situation.
In the U.S., 43 percent of African American and Latino workers are employed in service and production sectors whose work cannot be done remotely (2). These are jobs like food production, industrial workers, bus drivers, and restaurant personnel. In Latin America, the contrast is even more extreme as the economy is less diversified, creating huge differences between the population that access formal employment and those who make a living in informal economies.
In Peru, 70 percent of the population works informally, and 44 percent of households nationwide do not have access to refrigerators according to a 2018 survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics of Peru (INEI) (7). These circumstances make it difficult for families to shelter in place. Simultaneously, shelter in place enforcement by the police has increased in Latin America amidst unemployment and economic crises. Enforcement decreases society’s ability to protests and contest social and economic policies that protect the banking, extractive, and industrial sectors, to the detriment of the poor and people of color.
Racist social structures push certain human lives to the bottom of the hierarchy and reinforce a system that exploits human labor and natural resources. While a number of industries have been forced to slow down, others have taken advantage. This is the case for extractive activities in rural and peripheral areas such as the Amazon rainforest where business as usual has continued as investors seek to secure access to resources that would yield profits when the pandemic is under control. Current conditions have bolstered certain forms of accumulation, even at the expense of human lives.
According to historians, viruses such as smallpox, measles, and the flu decimated indigenous populations prior to the arrival of Europeans in American lands (8). This is echoed today as the administration of Jail Bolsonaro has left indigenous populations defenseless against the virus while promoting opportunities for domestic and international investment in the Amazon. According to research conducted by the New York Times, illegal logging, slash and burn land grabs, and illegal gold mining have increased exponentially in Brazil. 3,000 square miles of forest has been destroyed in the last year; in June alone, 400 square miles disappeared (9).
Similar situations are found in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia where oil, gas and mineral extraction have continued without pause. Ecuador has continued to extract and transport oil despite prices reaching negative numbers in April. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Amazon of Ecuador (CONFENIAE) has decried continued oil extraction despite the spill of around 150,000 barrels of crude into two major rivers at the beginning of April, affecting 105 communities who lost access to clean water and fish protein in remote Amazon areas during the pandemic (10). The Ecuadorian state has done little in response.
This pandemic has made it clear than rather than acting as an equalizer, Coronavirus has exacerbated structural racism and endless capital accumulation. Initial optimism for the pandemic as a vehicle of change has reversed course, and we are left asking, “What opportunities does the pandemic present for systematic change?”
The answer is a global awareness of the realities of societal racism, inequality, and their ties to capitalist structures. Ignoring the lessons from the pandemic is extremely dangerous. Doing so will deepen current social inequality, even endangering our survival as a society. What is needed more than ever is a clearer understanding of the ways in which structural racism and capitalist accumulation operate. We need to concentrate on education and critical awareness. Scholars and activists such as Chela Sandoval, Vandana Shiva, Maria Lugones, and Arturo Escobar have argued for this in the last decades. According to them, only a change in social consciousness, guided by a reflective process, could guide us beyond protest, beyond frustration, and towards permanent processes of mobilization. We must demand that states and institutions become accountable for structural inequalities and change our prejudices and behaviors from the bottom up.