Washington, D.C., March 19, 2021.– One year after the arrival of COVID-19 to the Americas, the pandemic continues to impact the region’s Afro-descendant population in distinct and disproportionate ways. As we approach International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21), the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) calls on States across the region to tackle the pandemic with public policies that account for this differential impact and guarantee economic recovery for all.
In our work defending and promoting human rights across Latin America and the Caribbean alongside historically marginalized groups such as Afro-descendants, we have tracked the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations and studied government responses across the region. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the region’s 130 million Afro-descendants make up 21% of the total population.
Different conditions, different impacts
COVID-19’s distinct and disproportionate impact on Afro-descendants is rooted in the structural racism, structural discrimination, and exclusion from which Afro-descendants were suffering before the pandemic due to both actions and omissions by regional governments. From the very beginning of the pandemic, this marginalization manifested as a lack of information in Afro-descendant communities about how to prevent infection and serious difficulties in accessing national health systems for those infected. Over the course of the pandemic, a surge of violence in countries such as Brazil and Colombia, perpetrated by both the police and criminal groups, has further threatened Afro-descendants’ rights.
Other than Brazil, no country has issued official statistics on how many Afro-descendants have contracted or died from COVID-19. Civil society organizations, however, have continued to document the inequalities facing Afro-descendants throughout the pandemic. In August 2020, Race and Equality published a report addressing the situation of Afro-descendants during the pandemic. Paola Yáñez, regional coordinators of the Network of Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean, and Disapora Women, is quoted in the report as saying, “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but we feel its effects in distinct ways because we don’t live in the same conditions.”
A regional view
Race and Equality’s partner organizations in the region emphasize that Afro-descendants began the pandemic in a situation of particular risk due to the discrimination and exclusion shaping their lives. When the pandemic took hold, government responses were generally inadequate and failed to account for the particular situations of Afro-descendant communities.
In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro continues to deny the severity of the pandemic, Afro-descendants represent 67% of those who rely on the public health system. The majority of Brazilians who suffer from diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension, and chronic kidney issues, all of which are aggravating factors for COVID-19, are also of African descent. According to the Brazilian Institute on Geography and Population, the COVID mortality rate for Afro-Brazilians has been 92 deaths per 100,000 people, while for the white population it has been 88 per 100,000.
In Colombia, Afro-descendant organizations have raised the alarm regarding their communities’ vulnerability to the pandemic, stemming from poor coverage by the public health and social security systems in majority-Afro-descendant areas. In cities such as Buenaventura (Valle de Cauca department) and Quidbó (Chocó department), the local hospital attends to 400,000 to 500,000 people without sufficient personnel or resources.
The Cuban government has used policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as a cover for police actions that prevent human rights defenders from carrying out their work. Members of the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration (CIR), for example, have suffered arbitrary detentions, police raids, and attacks throughout their campaign demanding that the government implement its touted National Program Against Racism and Racial Discrimination.
In Nicaragua, the impact of the pandemic is largely unknown due to the government’s refusal to publish thorough and timely statistical reports. Afro-descendant and indigenous populations on the Caribbean coast, however, entered the pandemic in a situation of extreme precarity due to violent land invasions and a lack of health and education services. Their vulnerability to the pandemic has only worsened due to the impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020.
In Mexico and Peru, both of which are among the hardest-hit countries in the region and the world, Afro-descendant communities have faced particular challenges. In Mexico, the 2020 census-which, thanks to the efforts of Afro-Mexican activists, was the first to include self-identification of Afro-Mexicans-coincided with the pandemic and was severely limited. In Peru, the official response to the pandemic was hampered by a political crisis stemming from the removal of President Martín Vizcarra.
The Convention against Racism is more important than ever
As we approach International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and in the context of the International Decade for People of African Descent, Race and Equality calls on all States to adopt the necessary measures to fight racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and the intersecting forms of intolerance that afflict people of African descent. These measures include legal reforms, the adoption of international instruments, and the implementation of effective policies.
Race and Equality continues to call upon States to ratify the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance. The Convention represents an effective and comprehensive framework for guaranteeing the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights of Afro-descendant people. To date, only Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, and Brazil (as of February of this year) have ratified the Convention. Brazilian civil society organizations continue to work to ensure that the Convention is implemented.
Race and Equality calls upon States to:
- Undertake public policies that combat structural racism and racial discrimination against Afro-descendant people.
- Improve national health, employment, and educations systems, including by eliminating the gulf between urban and rural areas.
- Prioritize Afro-descendant and indigenous communities in post-pandemic economic recovery plans.
- Incorporate particular efforts to address Afro-descendants into emergency response plans. These efforts should respect Afro-descendants’ right to free, prior, and informed consent; account for intersectional human rights issues; and address the needs of vulnerable populations such as children, women, displaced people, migrants, and LGBTI people.
- Create permanent programs to collect accurate, detailed, and disaggregated data on health, education, employment, and access to justice.