As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, Latin America’s slum dwellers waited defenseless in its path. Now, with the region becoming the new epicenter of the crisis, the virus is unleashing destruction on its most vulnerable populations.
With limited sanitation and little space, millions of people living cheek by jowl in slums cannot take even the most basic hand-washing and social distancing precautions recommended by health authorities.
“We are increasingly concerned about the poor and other vulnerable groups more at risk from disease and death from the virus,” Pan American Health Organization chief Carissa Etienne said this week.
With infections continuing to climb in the pandemic’s new epicenter Brazil, as well as Peru and Chile, experts warn the situation is rapidly worsening.
In a region where an estimated 54 percent are employed in the informal sector, slum residents are forced to choose between “starving or dying from the virus,” according to Brazilian economist Dalia Maimon of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Maimon sums up the prevailing belief as: “if dying of hunger is a certainty, by not working — then I will take the risk of trying not to become infected by going out to work.”
An economic crisis exacerbated by the shutdown has left millions of Latin Americans without a livelihood. In Brazil alone, five million people lost their jobs since the pandemic began, the government said Thursday.
‘Staying Home Means Starving’
“We are construction workers, people who sell things, people who go out every day. With confinement everything has changed for most of us. We find ourselves without any work,” Oscar Gonzalez, 43, told AFP.
Gonzalez, a welder in the deprived Brisas del Sol area of Santiago, was employed in a workshop that closed down last month. The neighborhood has seen an increase in social unrest this week as people took to the streets and erected barricades to demand state aid.
“We don’t even get a little help from the government here. They believe that we can live without money. But how can we buy food?” Gonzalez asked.
It is a sentiment heard also in Santiago’s sprawling La Pintana area, where locals lambast the state’s slow reaction to the crisis.
“If we don’t support each other, nobody helps us here,” says Gloria Reyes, a 62-year-old seamstress who now runs a soup kitchen.
The virus “has stopped everything,” said Claudia Gutierrez, 31, who runs a market stall selling second-hand clothes.
“I’m 55 years old, my family is from here and I have never seen so many soup kitchens in my life,” said La Pintana’s mayor Claudia Pizarro, a member of the leftist opposition Democratic Party. “Last week it was 20, and this week it’s 40,” she said.
La Pintana has more than 2,100 COVID-19 cases and “more than 50 percent of the PCR tests we are…