By James Atwood, Valentine Fuentes & Jonathan Gilbert
He couldn’t support his family. Matilde Alonso knew it was true but couldn’t believe it. The pandemic had just hit Guatemala with full force and Alonso, a 34-year-old construction worker, was suddenly unemployed.
He sat up all by himself until late at night, his mind racing and fighting tears. He had six mouths to feed, no income, and no hope of getting anything but the leanest crisis support checks – about $ 130 – from the financially troubled government.
Today, said Alonso, breakfast, lunch and dinner look around the same at his house in El Jocotillo: maybe a tortilla with salt; maybe a tortilla with beans; maybe a bowl of rice and beans. “We used to eat meat. Now there is no meat. We used to eat chicken. Now there is no chicken. We used to drink milk. Now there is no more milk.” Even bread, he said, is off the menu.
For tens of millions like Alonso, the pandemic has shown how fragile the economic status is worldwide. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Latin America, where a resurgence of poverty is sparking a vicious wave of hunger in a region that this type of malnutrition should have eradicated for the most part decades ago. From Buenos Aires to Mexico City, families forego meals and swap fresh products for starchy and sugary products. Even in Chile, a success story of the developing world, some neighborhoods are turning to community cooking in a throwback to the dictatorship era of the 1980s.
Latin America is characterized by the fact that most of the region’s governments do not have the financial power to provide the enormous amounts of aid that has been given in countries like the US and Europe. Then there are the millions of workers who work in the informal economy, selling mangoes from a street cart or cleaning houses for cash who are often excluded from aid programs.
The United Nations World Food Program estimates that the Latin American and Caribbean countries in which it operates will see the number of people experiencing severe food insecurity increase by around 270% in the coming months. That surge – from 4.3 million before the pandemic to 16 million – is likely to be the steepest in the world and more than double the estimated global growth rate, Norha Restrepo, a WFP spokeswoman in Panama, said over the phone.
The middle class in the region has started to grow. A boom in raw material prices from 2000 to 2014 led to a decline in the poverty rate from 27% to 12%. However, when the demand for raw materials cooled, it reversed rapidly. Argentina fell into a deep recession and the economic situation in Venezuela fell into unprecedented desperation. Meanwhile, the earlier phase of growth was already hiding deep fault lines in the region, where economic inequality, racial tensions and police brutality brewed just below the surface. These pressures led to mass protests last year, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Colombia, Chile and Ecuador.
The pandemic has made economic stability even more precarious. Millions are now making the unthinkable transition from living a relatively comfortable life to not knowing where their next meal will come from.
“The difference between being poor and becoming poor is brutal,” said Jose Aguilar, founder of Reactivemos La Esperanza, which supports 100 families in Costa Rica and tries to reach more people. “If you are middle class and have food, access to education and are used to a certain quality of life and it is suddenly taken from you through no fault of your own, it hits families really hard.”
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or Eclac, the region is well on the way to its worst recession in a century. This year it is projected to decline by 9.1% and unemployment to reach 13.5%. With half of the workforce living outside the formal economy, employment numbers don’t tell the full story. Regionally, Eclac expects another 28 million people to join the ranks of extreme poverty this year, with women being over-represented in poor households.
“This economic and health crisis is just beginning and will result in most people living in food shortages in recent times,” said Maria Teresa Garcia, director of Bancos de Alimentos de Mexico, a food charity. “This crisis will leave its mark for a long, long time.”
Other parts of the world are also experiencing the reversal. The World Bank warned in June that the pandemic could undo years of progress for the poor in less developed countries like India and Nigeria. Up to 100 million people are likely to find themselves in extreme poverty. This will result in a massive increase in food inequality. Up to 132 million more people than previously projected could go hungry in 2020, and this year’s increase could more than triple this century, according to United Nations estimates. Latin America is helping to lead this increase.
In Chile, Sonia Gallardo has switched from having dinner with chicken and rice to washing bread and butter with coffee. Sometimes it’s just coffee.
She emigrated from Peru 12 years ago to have a better life in Chile, leaving behind an old two-bedroom adobe house in Chiclayo that had been passed on to her mother. She worked as a housekeeper in Santiago and made $ 600 a month, enough to save for a house of her own. But strict bans ended that job and she is now fortunate enough to make $ 80 a month to resell cleaning products in the city’s bustling markets. There is hardly enough for food. She has suddenly lost 10 pounds and is adding elastic to her pants to keep them from falling off.
“I never thought that would happen. I thought I would never have to live like I did in Peru again, ”said Gallardo.
Like most of the world, hunger in Latin America has nothing to do with insufficient supplies. Indeed, the region is an agricultural powerhouse with fertile plains and valleys that produce grains, fruits and proteins that feed the world. The crisis is about whether those who became unemployed during the pandemic can afford to eat.
Government aid is largely outweighed by the need, even if some countries have chosen to implement aggressive stimulus packages. Brazil, for example, has launched an emergency cash scholarship program that is so ambitious that it has temporarily helped bring extreme poverty levels to national historic lows. However, this massive program expires at the end of the year and is too expensive to maintain. In most countries, payments are limited and people spend their money to pay for housing and utilities first. There is often little left to eat.
In Argentina, Miguel Leiva has withdrawn from unemployment and drugs in a slum in Buenos Aires. Now he supports his wife and two children as a bus driver and is training to be a primary school teacher. The country’s 41% inflation weighs on his monthly salary of $ 525, and strict bans mean he cannot work additional hours. He’s behind on credit card and ancillary billing payments, and the weekly grilling of Argentina’s famous short ribs is now “a luxury we can’t afford”. The family has also reduced fruits and vegetables. Sugar-laden chocolate chip cookies have replaced expensive yogurt, while the family’s flour intake for homemade pasta has increased ten-fold.
“It’s the same for everyone,” said 45-year-old Leiva. “We might eat okay for two weeks, but then we’ll have to survive until the end of the month and the next paycheck.”
An undernourished population typically means more expensive visits to doctors and hospitals, a less productive workforce, and more absenteeism from school. For the United Nations, the impact on the development of young children is most important. Food insecurity could also exacerbate unrest following the wave of protests in 2019.
In such a diverse region, the economic impact of the pandemic is mixed. Poor countries like Haiti and parts of Central America that rely on remittances are particularly at risk. Just like the millions of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru who are dependent on informal work and have no access to social programs. Tens of thousands of them are returning home with more mouths to feed in Venezuela, which was already on the brink of famine.
Even in more developed countries like Chile, some communities need to band together to ensure that people are fed.
In the Santiago district in Lo Hermida – known for its participation in social struggles, especially during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s – Erika Martinez organized “common pots” or community cook-ups, which have been able to feed around 300 people a day since then.
The food consists mainly of pasta and legumes. Local butchers or grocers sometimes kick in leftovers, and chicken is a rare treat. Cooking is done with firewood as there is no money for gas. The clientele is mainly made up of informal workers such as part-time traders, gardeners or seamstresses, who have been hit hardest by pandemic lockdowns.
“For us in Lo Hermida, the common pots are a sad memory of the 80s,” said 53-year-old Martinez. “I never thought we would have to come back to that.”
Back in Guatemala, the government has already reported an increase in the acute malnutrition rate among children under 5 years of age. Alonso, the construction worker, is so concerned about how to support his four children that he starts growing corn and beans. A friend leased him a small piece of land. Another gave him seeds and fertilizer and told him he could pay the cost back by the end of the year, he said. “It’s what I’ve been doing pandemic for a long time – improvising as best I can.”