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Latin American Bishops Facing Growing Poverty After COVID-19

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Jaqueline Romero, 23, stands outside her home in a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina on April 8, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Poverty and the consequences of the pandemic are expected to be at the forefront at the Sixth Church Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico from November 21 to 28. Photo CNS / Agustin Marcarian, Reuters

During the pandemic, parishes in the Diocese of Valle de Chalco, on the outskirts of Mexico City, prepared care packages, ate meals for families of COVID-19 patients and managed food banks.

But they are seeing more and more problems related to the pandemic.

“You see poverty, you see it increasing, and what I see above all in the streets like never before is so much informal trade,” said Father Raúl Martínez Arreortúa. Such activity in the tax-free economy – of people selling homemade food and drink from their vehicles, peddling items at intersections or doing odd jobs – “is a sign of increasing unemployment,” a- he declared.

The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly punished Latin America. Home to 8% of the world’s population, the region accounts for a third of all deaths from a pandemic. Poverty has worsened and inequalities have widened, exacerbating the problems that have long plagued Latin America. Schools have been closed longer in Latin America than in any other part of the world, with the poorest unable to learn remotely through spotty internet connections. High dropout rates threatened to truncate social mobility for millions of people.

Latin American economies contracted by 7% in 2020, the worst of any region, according to the International Monetary Fund. Forecasts for 2021 are mostly pessimistic – unlike other parts of the world – although recoveries are robust in some countries like Chile, which forecasts economic growth of 11%. Vaccination campaigns also started slowly, but have taken hold, with rates in some countries equaling or surpassing the United States.

“The pandemic has certainly brought more poverty. There are people who have not only lost their loved ones, but who have lost jobs (and) closed businesses, ”said Peruvian Archbishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte, president of the Council of Bishops of Latin America, or CELAM .

“We have to face this situation. It is certainly a call to governments and the church “to act, he told Catholic News Service.

CELAM has made the fight against poverty and the consequences of the pandemic a priority. Both issues are expected to take center stage at the Sixth Latin American and Caribbean Church Assembly in Mexico from November 21 to 28.

One of the preparatory documents for the assembly describes the pandemic as a “sign of a change of epoch”, which prompts people to consider “a major transformation of our culture towards a way of life ecologically, socially, economically, politically and culturally sustainable ”.

The document also notes: “In our region, the pandemic has revealed with great force the serious problems that we have suffered for decades: the great inequality of income in our societies, the unsanitary conditions for a life of dignity in dignity, the limited access to quality. health and education services, no access to clean water, sewage and electricity, as well as the problem of discrimination and exclusion of millions of people.

Analysts say Latin America was already suffering economically before the pandemic; poverty worsened and economies stagnated.

“The sharp increase in poverty in Latin America reflects the severe pre-pandemic economic turmoil in the region. Most of the region’s major economies remain dependent on commodity exports, and they have never recovered from the fall in commodity prices in 2014, ”said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin American program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington.

Most notably in the region, the Venezuelan economy has collapsed over the past decade, sending some 5.6 million migrants fleeing to other countries in the region and, more recently, the United States.

Quarantines during the pandemic hit precarious migrant populations hard, said Jesuit Father Mauricio García-Durán, executive director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Colombia. A loss of informal jobs and difficulties finding shelter in place prompted migrants to move to smaller towns “where quarantines were much less strict,” said Father García-Durán.

Migration to the United States slowed after the start of the pandemic, but returned in large numbers. The pandemic has only made matters worse, church leaders say.

“What people watch (through migration) is a means of material salvation,” said Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini from Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

“A lot of informal businesses have gone bankrupt. People have ended up with no money, and they almost certainly have loans that they cannot repay, ”he added. “So going to the United States… is one way to be able to solve these problems. “

Church leaders in Central America say an inept response to the pandemic – riddled with corruption – has worsened poverty and worsened outward migration.

The pandemic also revealed inequalities, including inadequate health systems that were underfunded and under-equipped before the pandemic and lacked the capacity to support people in need of intensive care.

Indigenous communities in parts of Mexico sealed off their communities to avoid contagion and were often suspicious of the authorities, a result of centuries of government lies, according to priests in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

In Mexico and also in the Amazon region, indigenous communities have turned to traditional medicine, according to priests in Mexico and Colombia.

“The pandemic has shown the weakness and fragility of the health system, which was very precarious,” said Jesuit Father Alfredo Ferro, executive secretary of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon.

Mexico has taken a contrarian approach to the pandemic: austerity, spending less than 1% of gross domestic product on its response to the pandemic. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke of families taking care of each other, but Mexican bishops warned of increasing hardship and increasing domestic violence.

In Argentina, particularly long quarantines – over 200 days in greater Buenos Aires – proved unpopular as the pandemic dragged on and poverty reached over 40% of the population.

At the start of the pandemic, Argentine President Alberto Fernández met with a group of priests known as “curas villeros”; they ministered in the slums, provided meals from their soup kitchens and turned the parishes into places of quarantine for sick patients.

Priests, however, expressed dismay at the government’s limited role in their communities, which have existed for decades on the margins of society without proper access to services such as health.

“We cannot and do not want to replace the state. But we can and want to collaborate, ”the priests said in a June 2020 press release.

“The role of the church was very important because Caritas… did not stop helping or accompanying the poor,” said Nicolás Meyer, director of Caritas Argentina. “It had been two years since our volunteers never stopped leaving and risking their lives, as there were volunteers who also died from COVID.”

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and as head of the editorial board of the 2007 CELAM Assembly document, Pope Francis spoke of a church going to the outskirts to evangelize. CELAM should renew its commitment to such practices.

“The church is very involved in many social issues,” said Rick Jones, former migration advisor for Catholic Relief Services.

He underlined the wide consultation upstream of the CELAM assembly and the participation of priests, religious and lay people in the assembly as something “which will mobilize the church as we had not seen for a long time.” But it is a process that is starting to happen.

Key words: COVID-19, Mexico City, Poverty

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