.
T

he COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated underlying social issues across the globe. No region has been as hard hit by the pandemic as the nations of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. Despite only representing about 13.1% of the global population, as of Dec. 20, 2021, the region saw approximately 36.4% of total COVID-19 cases and 44.6% of deaths. Not only were the health outcomes disproportionate, but the IMF noted that the Latin American and Caribbean region saw the economy contract by 7% percent in 2020, more than any other region in the world. Given how hard COVID-19 hit the Americas, it should come as little surprise that it has also exposed and exacerbated some of the region’s core underlying challenges—in particular the interlinked issues of inequality and declining trust in democracy. These two challenges can be seen as comorbidities to the COVID-19 pandemic in that they make it more difficult to address the pandemic itself and are worsened by the pandemic’s impact. 

The Latin America and Caribbean region is often considered one of the most unequal regions in the world. While inequality in the region declined drastically in the first decade of the 21st century, it has remained fairly constant ever since. Additionally, while the aggregate numbers highlight income inequality in the region, high levels of inequality based on ethno-racial identity and gender continue in the region as well. While all segments of society have been impacted by COVID-19, efforts to curb the spread of the disease were limited by the region’s high levels of inequality. In fact, evidence suggests that inequality and the higher need of the poor to continue working in the pandemic reduced the effectiveness of pandemic lockdown measures, particularly amongst the most vulnerable. Inequalities have echoed in the impact of COVID across different population groups. Evidence from the United States highlights the racial differences in both the likelihood of contracting and dying from the virus. While less information is available on the racial impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America, similar trends are evident where data is available. These high levels of inequality hamper the effectiveness of governments to address ongoing challenges and create a high level of distrust in the effectiveness of governments. 

The Americas also find themselves in the middle of a “democratic recession.” Leaders in many countries in the region have taken steps that challenge democracy and freedom in their countries. This has included assaults on the media, efforts to concentrate power in the executive, inappropriate uses of the armed forces, among other ongoing challenges. Despite these threats making democracy in the region fragile, most countries remain democracies. However, Cuba was the only country in the Americas that was non-democratic at the turn of the 21st century, but has now been joined by Nicaragua and Venezuela. These cases highlight how easily democratic backsliding can shift into full blown authoritarian regimes. 

Underlying these threats to democratic governance is declining support for democracy among the populace in the region. Results from the last round of the Latin American Public Opinion Project highlight that the decade-long decline in support for democracy has continued. This decline in support for democracy does not suggest citizens no longer want a voice in politics, but rather reflects concerns over high levels of corruption, the failure of governments to effectively address problems, and concerns over how democracy is functioning at home. While this has been a long-term phenomenon, the failure of governments across the region to curb the spread of COVID-19 coupled with high levels of corruption in COVID responses in some countries have done little to slow declining levels of support for democracy in the Americas. 

While a great deal of attention has long been paid to these issues in Latin America, these comorbidities are evident across the Americas—particularly within the United States. Relative to other OECD countries, the United States is among the most unequal, ranked as the fourth most unequal among the non-Latin American OECD countries (only being more Equal than Turkey, Bulgaria, and South Africa as well as the four Latin American OECD countries). Likewise, U.S. democracy is at one of the most fragile points in the nation’s history. Ignoring that the United States faces problems similar to its Hemispheric neighbors weakens the ability to collectively address these shared challenges and learn lessons from across the region. 

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to require that countries address not only the health impacts that the pandemic has laid bare, but seek to rectify the comorbidities that have exacerbated and been exacerbated by the pandemic. In the Americas, this is going to mean tackling the issues of inequality and declining support for democracy head on. 

Addressing these challenges will not be an easy task, requiring cooperation between all the Americas’ governments to address regional challenges while they simultaneously work to tackle these issues at home. Countries must show that popularly elected governments not only represent the will of the people, but are able to deliver on their promises, combat corruption, and tackle the varied challenges that face their citizens. This will require implementing reforms to promote transparency within government, greater citizen inclusion in budgetary processes, strengthening rule of law and anti-corruption measures, as well as active civics education campaigns that highlight why democracy works the way that it does and benefits that democracy and pluralism bring to society. 

All of these actions must also work to support all of a country’s citizens rather than reinforce the perception that the government continues to serve only a subset of the population. In addition to all of these, governments must seek to tackle inequality in their countries. This includes addressing not income inequality, but the systemic inequalities that are evident in every country in the region. Only by addressing both inequality and the governance crisis can the Americas move forward to a brighter future. 

The Americas must face not only the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but address some of the underlying symptoms that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and that have hampered governments’ abilities to address this crisis. It will not be enough just for the economy to rebound and to end the pandemic. Governments across the Americas need to address their citizens’ concerns about the quality of governance, their ability to deliver, and the underlying inequality that is prevalent across the region. Only then can the region be better prepared to advance in the 21st century and ensure governments that are truly for all of their citizens.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Americas’ Comorbidities: Inequality and Declining Trust in Democracy

Photo by Leon Overweel via Unsplash.

January 28, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Americas as hard or harder than any other region, exposing and exacerbating several of the region's core underlying challenges - particularly the interlinked issues of inequality and declining trust in democracy, writes Diplomatic Courier Editor Adam Ratzlaff.

T

he COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated underlying social issues across the globe. No region has been as hard hit by the pandemic as the nations of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. Despite only representing about 13.1% of the global population, as of Dec. 20, 2021, the region saw approximately 36.4% of total COVID-19 cases and 44.6% of deaths. Not only were the health outcomes disproportionate, but the IMF noted that the Latin American and Caribbean region saw the economy contract by 7% percent in 2020, more than any other region in the world. Given how hard COVID-19 hit the Americas, it should come as little surprise that it has also exposed and exacerbated some of the region’s core underlying challenges—in particular the interlinked issues of inequality and declining trust in democracy. These two challenges can be seen as comorbidities to the COVID-19 pandemic in that they make it more difficult to address the pandemic itself and are worsened by the pandemic’s impact. 

The Latin America and Caribbean region is often considered one of the most unequal regions in the world. While inequality in the region declined drastically in the first decade of the 21st century, it has remained fairly constant ever since. Additionally, while the aggregate numbers highlight income inequality in the region, high levels of inequality based on ethno-racial identity and gender continue in the region as well. While all segments of society have been impacted by COVID-19, efforts to curb the spread of the disease were limited by the region’s high levels of inequality. In fact, evidence suggests that inequality and the higher need of the poor to continue working in the pandemic reduced the effectiveness of pandemic lockdown measures, particularly amongst the most vulnerable. Inequalities have echoed in the impact of COVID across different population groups. Evidence from the United States highlights the racial differences in both the likelihood of contracting and dying from the virus. While less information is available on the racial impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America, similar trends are evident where data is available. These high levels of inequality hamper the effectiveness of governments to address ongoing challenges and create a high level of distrust in the effectiveness of governments. 

The Americas also find themselves in the middle of a “democratic recession.” Leaders in many countries in the region have taken steps that challenge democracy and freedom in their countries. This has included assaults on the media, efforts to concentrate power in the executive, inappropriate uses of the armed forces, among other ongoing challenges. Despite these threats making democracy in the region fragile, most countries remain democracies. However, Cuba was the only country in the Americas that was non-democratic at the turn of the 21st century, but has now been joined by Nicaragua and Venezuela. These cases highlight how easily democratic backsliding can shift into full blown authoritarian regimes. 

Underlying these threats to democratic governance is declining support for democracy among the populace in the region. Results from the last round of the Latin American Public Opinion Project highlight that the decade-long decline in support for democracy has continued. This decline in support for democracy does not suggest citizens no longer want a voice in politics, but rather reflects concerns over high levels of corruption, the failure of governments to effectively address problems, and concerns over how democracy is functioning at home. While this has been a long-term phenomenon, the failure of governments across the region to curb the spread of COVID-19 coupled with high levels of corruption in COVID responses in some countries have done little to slow declining levels of support for democracy in the Americas. 

While a great deal of attention has long been paid to these issues in Latin America, these comorbidities are evident across the Americas—particularly within the United States. Relative to other OECD countries, the United States is among the most unequal, ranked as the fourth most unequal among the non-Latin American OECD countries (only being more Equal than Turkey, Bulgaria, and South Africa as well as the four Latin American OECD countries). Likewise, U.S. democracy is at one of the most fragile points in the nation’s history. Ignoring that the United States faces problems similar to its Hemispheric neighbors weakens the ability to collectively address these shared challenges and learn lessons from across the region. 

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to require that countries address not only the health impacts that the pandemic has laid bare, but seek to rectify the comorbidities that have exacerbated and been exacerbated by the pandemic. In the Americas, this is going to mean tackling the issues of inequality and declining support for democracy head on. 

Addressing these challenges will not be an easy task, requiring cooperation between all the Americas’ governments to address regional challenges while they simultaneously work to tackle these issues at home. Countries must show that popularly elected governments not only represent the will of the people, but are able to deliver on their promises, combat corruption, and tackle the varied challenges that face their citizens. This will require implementing reforms to promote transparency within government, greater citizen inclusion in budgetary processes, strengthening rule of law and anti-corruption measures, as well as active civics education campaigns that highlight why democracy works the way that it does and benefits that democracy and pluralism bring to society. 

All of these actions must also work to support all of a country’s citizens rather than reinforce the perception that the government continues to serve only a subset of the population. In addition to all of these, governments must seek to tackle inequality in their countries. This includes addressing not income inequality, but the systemic inequalities that are evident in every country in the region. Only by addressing both inequality and the governance crisis can the Americas move forward to a brighter future. 

The Americas must face not only the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but address some of the underlying symptoms that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and that have hampered governments’ abilities to address this crisis. It will not be enough just for the economy to rebound and to end the pandemic. Governments across the Americas need to address their citizens’ concerns about the quality of governance, their ability to deliver, and the underlying inequality that is prevalent across the region. Only then can the region be better prepared to advance in the 21st century and ensure governments that are truly for all of their citizens.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.