Disasters & Inequality in a Protracted Crisis: Towards Universal, Comprehensive, Resilient and Sustainable Social Protection Systems in Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC, October 2021)

October 29, 2021

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has caused an unprecedented impact in Latin America and the Caribbean. What started as a public health crisis has become the worst economic and social crisis in a century and has exposed significant structural gaps in the region’s development model.The health catastrophe has impacted on areas as varied as production, economic growth, labour, transport, education, housing and mental health. It is a crisis of global scope, with consequences that are here to stay, along with the challenge of learning to live with those consequences and prepare for possible new epidemics in the years to come. However, it has also created opportunities to strengthen social cohesion by forging new social and fiscal compacts to support a big push for sustainability and progress towards a new development model in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ECLAC, 2020a).

Latin America and the Caribbean, like other regions of the world, has seen a steady increase in the frequency of disasters, be they hydrological, meteorological, geophysical, climatological, or biological in origin (ECLAC, 2014; Bello, Bustamante and Pizarro, 2020).

Moreover, in some cases, the increased frequency and intensity of disasters has led to prolonged social, economic and environmental crises that jeopardize the possibility of recovery and the viability of advancing towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (ECLAC, 2020a).

Of particular concern is the ongoing crisis experienced today by the Caribbean, largely comprised of small island developing States, where recurrent hurricanes, water pollution, drought and volcanic eruptions, in combination with their high indebtedness, have significant impacts on infrastructure and quality of life. Added to this subregion’s particular challenges related to its vulnerability and exposure to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise, most of the Caribbean economies are fragile, depending heavily on tourism and related services. As a result, there is significant exposure to risk that affects economic growth and employment opportunities, as witnessed during the pandemic.

The 2030 Agenda is more relevant today than ever. In the face of the profound impacts of the crisis, it will be necessary to redouble efforts to achieve the SDGs and tackle inequality, which represents one of the main barriers to their achievement in the region. Moreover, rising inequality has been a key driver of increasing social and political tensions in recent times.

The region is currently at a critical juncture of great uncertainty; it is suffering significant and recurrent impacts of disasters and the crises they cause, but at the same time there is a growing conviction that these must be dealt with in a sustainable and collaborative manner, paving the way for significant advances in social protection and disaster management that help to develop dual resilience.

This document by ECLAC seeks to explore these aspects in greater depth and discusses various alternatives for implementing some of the lines of action of the Regional Agenda, in relation to the role that social protection must play in dealing with disasters, with an approach geared towards a transformative recovery with equality and sustainability. The first chapter presents an analysis of the matrix of social inequality and the Regional Agenda for Inclusive Social Development in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new empirical data that have emerged on the vulnerability of the population and the way in which the different axes of inequality have influenced the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic in the region, with a special focus on the situation of the middle-income strata.

The second chapter gives an overview of the responses of the region’s governments to the pandemic and how they have managed their social protection systems to cope with an emergency that has developed into a protracted crisis. It highlights the challenges faced, the innovations generated and the lessons learned over the past two years, and concludes with a set of conclusions and recommendations in the field of non-contributory social protection.

The third chapter provides an overview of the crisis situation in the Caribbean in relation to disasters. It draws attention to the vulnerabilities of this subregion, marked by hurricanes, droughts, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, as well as a complex fiscal situation due to its indebtedness. This is contrasted with the space of public policy, the institutional framework developed in the countries and regional cooperation to address these vulnerabilities.

The fourth chapter presents a conceptual discussion of the various types of disasters, the characteristics of their evolution and impact, and the challenges or requirements they impose on public policy in general and social protection in particular. This is then complemented with a proposed approach to the treatment of disasters in social protection systems, incorporating the principles of universality, comprehensiveness, sustainability, dual resilience and transformative recovery. This, in turn, is linked to the opportunities and challenges to be faced to provide a big push for sustainability in the social dimension.

The fifth and final chapter focuses on proposals for making progress with regard to social protection and disasters and promoting inclusion, equality and sustainability, based on the lines of action of the Regional Agenda.

Click here to access the publication on the ECLAC website.