Afro-descendants in Latin America
COVID-19 has been a blow to Latin-America and the Caribbean. But, for the 100-150 million African descendants in the region, that represent 20-30% of the population, the impact has been particularly grave. African descendants have been disproportionately impacted due to inequalities in labor market access, education, and health services. The full extent of COVID-19 is still being discovered, however looking into the future, it is critical that throughout the recovery process, policies address these inequalities, and take under consideration the impact of the crisis on African descendants to ensure that the recovery is equitable for all.
Even before COVID-19, African descendants faced substantially higher rates of poverty than non-African descendants across the region.[i] Additionally, despite impressive reductions in poverty across the region in the start of the 2000s, poverty rates in many countries fell more quickly for those who were not of African or indigenous decent. Another important factor is that African descendants experience higher levels of labor market informality. This makes poverty reduction programs through cash transfers less effective for them in places such as Brazil and Uruguay.[ii], and it limits access to pensions and unemployment insurance among the population.
Inequalities in the labor market however go far beyond poverty levels and levels of formality. Although labor force participation rates are similar across gender and race in most Latin American countries, African descendants face higher rates of unemployment than the general population. This is particularly true for African descendant women.[iii] Gender and racial inequalities are not only evident in unemployment rates, but also in the types and quality of jobs available to African descendants and African descendant women in particular. Recent studies have found that there are few African descendant women in senior management positions. In fact, they only represent 10% of these positions in the Caribbean.[iv] Similarly, despite representing a majority of the population, Afro-Brazilians only accounted for 25.9% of supervisors and 6.3% of managers among Brazil’s 500 largest firms. [v] Instead, African descendants are overrepresented within more vulnerable employment sectors. Between 65 and 80% of Afro-Descendant women in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ecuador work as manual laborers, positions that are often highly informal and have high turnover rates.[vi] These differences in employment opportunities have made a great difference in the impact of stay-at-home measures implemented by governments in the region. For instance, while stay-at-home- measures resulted in a flattening of the curve in COVID-19 cases for the white population in Brazil, Afro-Brazilians continued to see rates climb despite these measures.[vii]
Another particularly concerning inequality for COVID-19 responses are racial inequalities in educational outcomes and opportunities. Despite important gains in educational attainment and the closing of racial gaps in many countries in the region, gaps in educational level between African descendants and the general population remain in most countries in the region.[viii] While African descendant women’s educational attainment rates have surpassed those of their male counterparts, with the exception of Peru, gaps remain in most countries and these gains have not translated into equal opportunities in the labor market. This has been true even in cases where African descendant women have become the most educated segment of society.[ix]
As COVID-19 forced many to work from home and students to enter virtual education, inequalities in access to the internet widened existing racial inequalities in the labor market and education. Gaps in access to telecommunications technology are evident across the region.[x] These access gaps are present in access to cellphones, a computer in the home, and access to the internet. Furthermore, in many countries, these racial gaps are worsened by gender gaps with lower levels of access among households headed by African descendant women. Given the nature of COVID-19 and efforts to provide education remotely and opportunities for remote work, racial and gender gaps in access to crucial telecommunications technology may lead to a widening of inequalities between African descendants and the rest of the population in the region.
Given the racial inequalities that are present in our region, as we seek to recover from the impact of COVID-19, policies and responses require specific attention in areas such as:
- Safety Nets for Vulnerable Populations
- Address bias. Crisis situations, such as COVID-19, can increase bias and tribalism. It is thus necessary to mitigate this exclusion in a way that ensures that African descendants receive benefits from policy responses and government programs.
- Design targeted communication campaigns that prioritize equal access to state safety nets for African descendants and build dialogues between the African descendant population and governments.
- Economic Productivity and Employment
- Expand direct transfer programs in a manner that protects the incomes of African descendants, particularly those working in the informal sector.
- Ensure internet access and possibilities for remote work, education, and healthcare for African Descendants and indigenous peoples.
- Expand courses and access to credit to promote African descendant entrepreneurship and locally designed employment solutions.
- Harness the emerging dialogue with the private sector to incorporate African descendants in formal sector employment opportunities and corporate procurement strategies.
- Fiscal Policy to Alleviate Economic Impacts
- Design targeting mechanisms to guarantee that the populations most vulnerable to COVID‑19 are benefitting.
- Consider racial and ethnic inequalities when designing government spending and taxation programs.
- Recognize the vulnerability of informal workers when evaluating existing direct transfer and pension programs and expand extraordinary transfers, non-contributory pensions, and subsidies to improve coverage for African descendants.
- Expand unemployment insurance to target those working in the informal sector.
The COVID-19 recovery process is a unique opportunity to promote equitable recovery that addresses long-standing socio-economic gaps. The emergency aspects of the recovery have passed, and policy makers are looking at longer-term aspects of recovery. This is precisely the moment to reflect on how to ensure that the policies that we put in place now take advantage of important gains and do not exclude vulnerable groups.
How do you think that policymakers in the region can take advantage of opportunities to make this recovery as sustainable and resilient as possible? Do you see regional, ethnic, urban vs. rural gaps that could put this recovery at risk? What needs to be done to better incorporate the needs of indigenous peoples and African descendants in policy discussions and reforms?