October 13, 2020

Refugees, Indigenous People, Transgenders and Prisoners : Latin American Governments’ Miscommunication with the Most Vulnerable Communities During COVID- 19

 By Marcelo Rodriguez and Victoria De La Torre

        In times of a pandemic, vital information becomes a matter of life and death. However, at a time when civilians need it the most, the overnight transformation of government information into a solely virtual presence has created a plethora of issues as well as even more obstacles to reach the most vulnerable communities. These insecurities have transformed any vital pandemic-related information emanating from the government into a minefield of contradictory, constantly-changing, and at times erroneous messaging. When it comes to vulnerable communities, feelings of mistrust and fear have exacerbated and exposed a pattern of insufficient resources and isolation. We have chosen to concentrate our research on four vulnerable communities in the region: Refugees, Indigenous, Transgender and Prisoners. From the perspective of these four vulnerable groups, we would like to highlight how the new virtual reality of exclusively online government information has left these groups stranded and isolated when they needed these government services the most.
         The pandemic has essentially halted all global, international migration as borders close, and workers return to their home countries. Over 120 countries have closed their borders all over the world citing Coronavirus as the primary reason, and only 30 of those countries currently accept asylum claims. Peru was home to some 865,000 Venezuelan migrants prior to COVID-19. A significant number of them has been returning home due to lack of work during Peru’s pandemic shutdown, which led to a 16.25% drop in GDP during the month of March alone. Venezuelan makeshift border quarantine facilities built along the border in small villages and communities to contain migrants and refugees are hotbeds for contamination and spreading illness. Hundreds of people and children are forced to stay for two weeks in these facilities without beds, clean water, or food beyond rice and lentils while endangering the civilians whose homes and schools have been commandeered.

Latin America’s waves of immigration are not solely composed of migrant workers attempting to return home, but it is also inclusive of those traveling as refugees because risking exposure to COVID-19 is less of a threat to their lives and families than staying home. Few cities, like Mexico City, consider registering asylum to be essential work and permit refugees within its borders despite the rate of applicants plummeting to below 90%. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi urges that “... securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive.”

            Historically disenfranchised and in the margins of most Latin American societies, COVID-19 seriously threatens the very existence of indigenous groups throughout the region. The circumstances and problems facing these communities are known by the authorities, and they have been extensively studied. Lack of adequate health services, precarious sanitary conditions, lack of access to digital technology and discrimation in accessing government services are among the main problems aggravating any government’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in indigenous communities. Weaker immune systems and isolation have come to exacerbate an already fragile situation. Despite the fact that some indigenous communities have opted for even more isolation in order to avoid contagion, groups such as Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, Peru’s Amazon indigenous federation, Colombia’s national indigenous organization have called upon their respective national governments as well as international organizations to reach out to all groups with the vital information needed regarding the pandemic. A complete lack of coordination among national lockdowns, border closures and state of emergencies have made the situation untenable and counterproductive to any efforts to contain the virus anywhere. 

        On April 2, Peru, together with Panama, began restricting movement by gender. Women and men were allowed to leave their houses exclusively on the three days assigned to their gender. No one was allowed to leave their houses on Sundays. This gender-based restrictive policy proved to be controversial with the transgender community in Peru as well as creating a significant amount of confusion and chaos. On April 10, Peru canceled the controversial policy. However, as far as we know, Panama has continued its implementation, and since the end of April, Colombia’s capital city, Bogota has decided to implement a similar policy. These failed and discriminatory policies are unfortunately part of a pattern of transphobia which COVID-19 has exacerbated or has brought to everyone’s attention: lack of access to health care, harassment by the public as well as police forces, and fear to report any abuses

         When the remains of Victor Calderón’s son were returned to him after the Venezuelan prison riot that reportedly killed 47 inmates, the remains were numbered “128” suggesting a much higher, unknown death toll. The anarchy is said to have been provoked by abusive guards stealing food from inmates in addition to the deplorable, barbaric conditions the inmates are forced to endure. Prison riots are not out of the norm in Latin American countries, where power is often held by crime groups with the consent of the guards and wardens, and a high percentage of inmates are still awaiting trial without having received a conviction. While governments scramble to protect themselves from the Novel Coronavirus, prisoners are among the minority groups being forgotten. In response, riots have broken out in prisons across Peru where convicted politicians are being released to avoid the virus, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, where the prisons have become the epicenter of the Covid outbreak. Over 580,000 detainees from 80 countries have been authorized for release, which is only 5% of the prisoners in those countries. Few of them have actually been released.

            In a matter of two weeks, numerous countries in Latin America and the Caribbean declared national lockdowns due to the unprecedented and challenging COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its differences, the many national lockdowns dramatically transformed all government communication and functions to exclusively virtual messaging within a matter of days. Given the abrupt change of communication format as well as the lack of preparedness and resources, governments in the region had to learn a new set of rules and dynamics which consequently have exacerbated issues of disinformation, lack of transparency, and accountability especially towards the most vulnerable communities. 

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