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Scholars Talk COVID-19 Impact on Latin American Minority Groups

The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies held an event online Tuesday.
The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies held an event online Tuesday. By Owen A. Berger
By Omar Abdel Haq and David R. Shaw, Contributing Writers

Academics discussed the COVID-19 pandemic’s disparate impact on Black and indigenous populations in Brazil and Mexico during a webinar hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Tuesday.

Panelists included Marcia C. de Castro, a demography professor at the School of Public Health; Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law; and Edward E. Telles, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Alisha C. Holland, a Harvard associate professor of government, moderated the event.

The pandemic disproportionately affects Black and indigenous populations in Brazil because they are more likely to work jobs that cannot happen remotely — similar to the United States — and may also have no option but to take public transportation, leading to greater COVID-19 exposure, Castro said. She added that the coronavirus mortality rate among Black, mixed-race, and indigenous people in Brazil is two times higher than that among white people, she said.

Brazil ranks third and second in the world in terms of documented COVID-19 cases and deaths, respectively.

The coronavirus pandemic has magnified preexisting racial inequalities in Brazil. For example, Castro said, mother mortality rates are twice as high for Black mothers.

Castro said she believes the Brazilian health care system was positioned for an effective pandemic response; “community health agents” live in the regions they serve and know which populations are most vulnerable. However, she said, the Brazilian government did not use these resources, forcing community organizations to step up in their local areas — whether developing apps that tracked coronavirus systems for the elderly or just providing food.

“Brazil failed to use its universal health system, and failed to use what is the largest community-based primary care program in the world,” Castro said.

In his presentation on Mexico, Diaz-Cayeros noted that the COVID-19 case fatality rate for indigenous people is almost twice as high as that for other Mexican citizens — 9.8 percent compared to 5.8 percent.

Diaz-Cayeros argued that the Mexican government’s attitude toward indigenous people must change in order to support them through the pandemic. The government often argues that indigenous people have suffered more from the coronavirus because they practice traditional medicine, Diaz-Cayeros said, but there is more to the story.

“What is distinct about indigenous communities in Mexico, at least, is that they have different forms of governance, different ways in which they construct trust, that they respond publicly,” he said. “That's what we should be stressing and learning from.”

Holland said raising awareness of such health inequalities is the first step to solving the problem.

“Without attention to underlying racial and ethnic inequalities, public health authorities often reproduce or exacerbate long-standing inequalities,” Holland wrote in an email.

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