COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are fighting an epic battle, ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | From the Chilean miracle to hunger protests: how COVID-19 and social conflict responses relate

COVID-19 and Conflict | From the Chilean miracle to hunger protests: how COVID-19 and social conflict responses relate

COVID-19 broke out in Chile last year in the midst of an intensive social conflict rooted in the deep-seated inequalities caused by the free-market reforms in the country. The case ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

Mistrust in state-provided information about COVID-19 has characterized citizen responses to the pandemic in Haiti, preventing the effective management of the virus. This article shows that this mistrust is rooted in a number of historical, political, and social factors, including the perceived mismanagement of past crises. In the wake of resistance to pandemic measures and failure to adhere to regulations, local organizations can play an important role in contexts with low institutional trustworthiness.

To date, Haiti has managed to register a relatively low number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths. Initial concerns regarding the potential devastation COVID-19 could cause in Haiti were related to insufficient sanitary standards and medical facilities necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and ensure the proper treatment of infected patients. However, it turned out that the misunderstanding of COVID-19-related information was another major challenge that prevented people from taking preventative measures and going to hospital when infected.

Some studies conducted during the cholera outbreak in 2010 have pointed out that extreme poverty and low levels of education can cause mistrust in information on health instructions (Cénat, 2020). Nevertheless, these narrow explanations disregard the historical and socio-political background that has nurtured the mistrust of the population in public institutions that is also visible in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local organizations have played a central role in addressing the Haitian community’s disbeliefs around COVID-19, stepping in as interlocutors in the fight against the spread of the virus.

Over the past few years, discontent with the performance of the state has led to extensive protests. On many occasions, people have called for the resignation of the president and the dissolution of the government, denouncing its inability to manage past crises, claiming a lack of accountability, and citing worsening inequality. Furthermore, the community’s anger has been extended to international institutions, particularly the Core Group[i], the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). They are blamed for intervening in Haiti’s internal politics and supporting the current regime, thus keeping the president from resigning (AFP, 2019).

Such anger at, and mistrust in, people in power has been constructed historically. The importation of cholera to Haiti by a UN agent in 2010 as well as successive governments’ mismanagement of the consequent outbreak, the lack of accountability for and the dissatisfaction with the 2010 earthquake responses, the exposure of PetroCaribe fund-related corruption, and the widely reported sexual abuse scandal are just some of the cases that have led to widespread mistrust of those in power.

Damage already done?

When the first COVID-19 infection was confirmed, the government immediately declared a health emergency, imposing restrictive measures and undertaking information campaigns to raise awareness of the pandemic and the necessary sanitary measures to be taken through broadcasts on television, radio, and social media, or by means of vehicles circulating in suburbs with speakers mounted on their roofs[ii]. Despite these efforts, due to the general mistrust and lack of legitimacy of the current government, not only protests against ‘lockdown’ measures and the refusal to adhere to them, but also disbelief surrounding the disease led to the spread of rumours and misinformation (See also Dorcela and St. Jean, 2020). “People think of COVID-19 as a political matter”, said a head of a local youth group.

Hearsay varied from the government having invented the virus to receive money from international aid agencies or diverting attention from the internal political issues[iii] to the hospitals testing a new vaccine on the Haitian population. The disbeliefs were such that people ended up claiming that those showing the same symptoms of COVID-19 were not infected by the virus, but with a different disease that they called ‘Ti lafyèv’ (‘small fever’)[iv], which was assumed to be easily treatable with ‘te anmè’ (bitter tea), therefore ensuring that hospital visits (and testing) were ‘not necessary’.

Given the misinformation, on the one hand people have not taken the virus seriously and therefore failed to follow preventative measures, while on the other hand panic was created and people stigmatized, which prevented them from going to the doctor and accelerated the spread of the virus. Additionally, some acts of sabotage of medical services were reported.

Countering disbelief, panic, and stigma, some local leaders and organizations took important initiatives to disseminate correct information and to help the communities cope with the government measures. For example, Doctors Without Borders and Gheskio, a leading Haitian healthcare institution, trained volunteers as field officers to spread information about the virus by visiting people (what it is, how to protect oneself, which hospitals to go to, etc.). In this regard, Dr. Pape, a founder of Gheskio, argued that “poor people are not stupid. [They] want to make sure that what you’re telling them is real.”[v]

Other civil society organizations (CSOs) also took various initiatives to communicate with people. While some initiatives used campaign music or held quiz contests with questions about COVID-19, allowing participants to learn about the virus while having fun, others visited street vendors and residents, going door to door with information leaflets to clear up the misunderstanding, to remind people that the virus is still present, and to ask them to wear face masks and wash their hands even if others do not follow the measures. Also, the CSO Ekoloji pou Ayiti established hand-washing stations in Furcy and its members stood at the stations to explain to the users which precautions and preventative measures to take, as well as how to make homemade sanitizer.

Thus, in places where the legitimacy and credibility of the government is disputed, such as Haiti, interlocutors such as CSOs and other local organizations can significantly contribute to effective crisis management. The above examples once again highlight the vital role of local actors in articulating and ‘narrowing down’ key messages and practices among the population that are central in managing the spread and effects of the virus.


References

AFP (2019) “Haïti: l’opposition manifeste contre « l’ingérence internationale » (Haiti: the opposition manifestes against the « international interference »”. Available at: https://5minutes.rtl.lu/actu/monde/a/1413480.html (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

Cénat, J. M. (2020) “The Vulnerability of Low-and Middle-Income Countries Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Haiti”, in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease 37 (101684). Doi: 10.1016/j.tmaid.2020.101684

Dorcela, S. and St. Jean, M. (2020) “Covid-19: Haiti is Vulnerable, but the International Community Can Help”. Available at: https://www.the-hospitalist.org/hospitalist/article/224836/coronavirus-updates/covid-19-haiti-vulnerable-international-community-can (Accessed: 19 July 2020).


Footnotes

[i] Refers to a diplomatic group composed of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Spain, the US, and the OAS.

[ii] Telephonic conversation with a physician in Port-au-Prince on 4 July 2020 and with a health professional in Les Cayes on 20 July 2020.

[iii] Telephonic conversation with a physician in Port-au-Prince on 4 July 2020.

[iv] Telephonic conversation with a health professional in Les Cayes on 20 July 2020.

[v] See Feliciano, I. and Kargbo, C. (2020) “As COVID cases surge, Haiti’s Dr. Pape is on the frontline again”.

This article is an outcome of research conducted by the authors between June and August 2020 as part of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ project. The research aimed to analyze the tensions between top-down measures implemented to face the COVID-19 emergency and the bottom-up responses and mechanisms seen among local leaders and institutions in Haiti. Methodologically, it was conducted by doing a secondary sources review and remote interviews with a number of Haitian health professionals.

About the authors:

Angela Sabogal is a sociologist who graduated from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. She is currently finishing an MA degree in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has six years of working experience in social project management in Colombia and Haiti.

Yuki Fujita is MA degree student in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her major at the ISS is the Social Policy for Development. Before coming to the ISS, she worked in the diplomatic corps in Haiti for two years from 2017 to 2019.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

The inaction of the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed some members of Brazilian society into an even more vulnerable position. Yet many of these groups seem to ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | The state’s failure to respond to COVID-19 in Brazil: an intentional disaster

COVID-19 and Conflict | The state’s failure to respond to COVID-19 in Brazil: an intentional disaster

The COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil stretches beyond the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The inaction of the government over the past year to counter the effects of the pandemic has ...

COVID-19 | There’s no stopping feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign draws to a close today, Agustina Solera and Brenda Rodríguez Cortés reflect on the challenges women in Latin America have faced over the past year and how, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they have stood strong as ever, braving the particularly difficult conditions that they have had to face this year.

During an academic retreat in late August, we reflected on feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic. We recalled that the last time we had seen each other in person before the retreat was during the International Women’s Day march in Amsterdam as part of ‘Feministas en Holanda’, a collective of self-identified feminists from Latin America living in the Netherlands. ‘

The foundation of ‘Feministas en Holanda’ dates back to the summer of 2018, when we joined a group of other Latin American women to demonstrate outside of the Argentinian Embassy in The Hague in favour of the decriminalization of abortion. Even though the bill that could have decriminalized abortion in Argentina wasn’t passed, the protest was a moment for feminist women from Latin American living in the Netherlands to meet face to face. It was there where we realized that there were many of us who have the same commitment to gender issues and that we weren’t alone in our struggles; on the contrary, we embraced each other, and from that day on the movement continued to bloom, both online and on the streets.

Some of the most pressing issues that women face in Latin America include feminicides and disappearances, gender and sexual violence, racial discrimination, the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, violence targeted against environmental defenders and activists, poverty, and the precarization of work and employment for women. The multiplicity of struggles of Latin American women has also brought boundless ways of fighting back and resisting. Examples include the feminist performance ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist on your path’) in Chile denouncing violence against women and state violence, the #EleNão (‘Not him’) movement in Brazil against Jair Bolsonaro’s sexism and fascism, the #NiUnaMenos (‘Not one woman less’) movement that started in Argentina against gender-based violence and feminicides and quickly spread to other Latin-American countries, and Mexico’s #MiPrimerAcoso campaign denouncing sexual harassment and violence even before the #MeToo movement captured global attention.

Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the feminist struggles in Latin America. While the pandemic has clearly shown us the interconnections between different systems of oppression and its effects on marginalized communities, women and racial and ethnic minorities, it has also magnified and deepened several social inequalities, including gender inequality.

The massive scope of the virus highlights the unequal access to basic services like safe water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as public services such as health and education, access to affordable housing, food and decent work. Quarantine became a privilege accessible only to those who have a house or who could lock themselves up and work remotely. Moreover, in many cases, seeking refuge from the danger of the virus meant being locked up in a situation no less dangerous for some women: a situation of domestic violence and abuse. Protection of life during the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we stay inside our homes. However, this puts many women in greater risk by living 24/7 with their abuser. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and protective sanitary measures, women’s shelters soon reached full capacity, thus preventing women from seeking refuge.

Moreover, household and care work—activities that primarily fall on women’s shoulders—have also increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. Women now have to ensure total hygiene, constantly clean the house, look after their children and elderly relatives, and assist children in virtual schooling, which overburdens them even more. The most is being asked of those who have been guaranteed the least (Maffia, 2020). The pandemic has brought the domestic sphere to centre stage. Many of the issues that feminist movements had already been denouncing and that were not visible precisely because they were in the realm of the intimate today emerge strongly. We see that all of this work is essential for society to continue and, above all, for life to be preserved.

And the pandemic has also disrupted the already limited access to sexual and reproductive health services that women have in Latin America. A UN policy brief reported that an additional 18 million women in the region would cease to have access to contraceptives because of the pandemic (UN, 2020). The ongoing lockdowns, lack of access to birth control and family planning in addition to an increase in gender-based and sexual violence could lead to an estimated 600,000 unintended pregnancies in the region (Murray and Moloney, 2020).

Despite having some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, feminist groups in Latin America put their bodies on the line and went out on the streets to demand justice for social problems that existed even before the pandemic and those that have intensified because of it.

In Mexico, for example, women and family members of victims of gender and sexual violence and disappeared women, together with the support of feminist collectives, have occupied the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) since early September as a response to the inability of the government to provide access to justice and the impunity of such crimes. In Quito, Ecuador, as in other cities in the region, hundreds of women went out on the streets on 28 September, International Safe Abortion Day, to demand access to legal and safe abortion. And in Colombia, feminist collectives started the campaign ‘¡Estamos Putas! ¡Juntas somos más poderosas!’ to support cis and trans women sex workers who have been affected by the coronavirus-related ban on sex work during the lockdown.

These are just some examples of how the feminist movements in Latin America continue to transform society and to enact social change and social justice, even throughout a pandemic. As two migrant women, feminists from Latin America living in Europe and working in academia, we acknowledge our privileges and choose to use our voices to amplify those of our compañeras back home and make visible their struggles and contributions. The enormous efforts by women who, collectively, support victims of gender violence, accompany women to abortions, report police brutality, look for disappeared people and fight extractive industries, were being made before the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be made. We hope that now women’s fundamental contributions become even more visible and valued by the whole of our society.


References

Bartels-Bland, E. (2020) “COVID-19 Could Worsen Gender Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean”, World Bank. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.worldbank.org%2Fen%2Fnews%2Ffeature%2F2020%2F05%2F15%2Fcovid-19-could-worsen-gender-inequality-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=oFG0rjBqELfmooAtieUHMxzk79Cw7WmpehUCQsVB7Pg%3D&reserved=0

Lugones, M. (2007) “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System”. Hypatia 22(1), 186-209.

Maffia, Diana (2020) “Violencia de Género: ¿La otra pandemia?” In El futuro después del COVID-19. Argentina Unida. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.argentina.gob.ar%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2Fel_futuro_despues_del_covid-19_0.pdf&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=I9IPssiI8Rzzzvran9Okzrqa813asSwkZcIDtUkOVkk%3D&reserved=0

Murray C. and Moloney, A. (2020). “Pandemic brings growing risk of pregnancy, abuse to Latin American girls”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reuters.com%2Farticle%2Fus-health-coronavirus-latamgirls-trfn-idUSKCN24W1EN&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=BZZcVyhhahmxGJA6T3GfMZ%2FBtOkPOkjcQtaNB1DN4KM%3D&reserved=0

UN (2020), “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.un.org%2Fsites%2Fun2.un.org%2Ffiles%2Fpolicy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=WGB6vwEiIhYhoZD1FToyYjjfN18NWpL%2Ff%2F64mq%2B5dIE%3D&reserved=0

UN Women (2020) “COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls”. In https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.unwomen.org%2Fen%2Fdigital-library%2Fpublications%2F2020%2F04%2Fissue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls&data=04%7C01%7Cbliss%40iss.nl%7Cdfad3f9f62124c4b6ab008d89cf034c5%7C715902d6f63e4b8d929b4bb170bad492%7C0%7C0%7C637431902783559546%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C1000&sdata=V5koQXaTqs9850PnQF%2Bty5gw%2FL7Btzrjsi357Dmw1ZE%3D&reserved=0

This blog article was first published in DevISSues and has been modified for publication on Bliss.

About the authors:

Agustina Solera is a researcher in Latin American Social Studies and a visiting researcher at ISS.

Brenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on issues of gender and sexuality.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.