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Precarious housing a key factor in Covid-19 spread in Latin America

. Aug 11, 2020
brazil argentina housing Homeless man on the street during a pandemic in Buenos Aires. Photo: LiAndStudio/Shutterstock

Late in February, when the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Brazil and Argentina, the most affected demographics consisted of high-income families that brought the virus into the country after vacationing in Europe and Asia. As editor Euan Marshall explained at the time, Covid-19 entered Brazil as a disease of the jet-set elite.

But as Brazil tops the mark of 3 million confirmed cases — as well as reaching over 100,000 deaths — and with Argentina posting record numbers of new daily infections, the demographics of the pandemic have dramatically shifted. The contagion curve has spiked in lower-income areas, where social isolation is more challenging and often impossible. Experts believe that this trend has everything to do with the stabilization of new daily cases and deaths at high levels.

However, structural problems in regards to access to housing and public services — such as clean water and basic sanitation — drives home the point that Latin America’s brutal inequality hinders sanitary control strategies.

We take Brazil and Argentina — South America’s two largest nations — as a case study.

</p> <h2>Precarious housing in Brazil</h2> <p>Sixteen percent of Brazilians — that is, over 33 million people — have no access to clean running water. Meanwhile, almost half of the population doesn&#8217;t have access to a proper sewage system. Moreover, data from 2019 reveals that Brazil has over 5 million homes in &#8216;sub-normal clusters,&#8217; defined as housing in areas without basic public services.</p> <p>Rodrigo Faria Iacovini, a Ph.D. in urban planning and coordinator of the Citizenship School of the Pólis Institute, tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that housing precarity alone doesn&#8217;t explain the spread of the coronavirus in Brazil. It is, however, a key factor in aggravating the health crisis. The number of Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants is significantly lower in areas with better sanitation coverage, according to data from think tank Trata Brasil Institute and the Health Ministry.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/3434430" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3434430/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>&#8220;The right to housing matters to the right of collective healthcare in the city. If a big proportion of families live without water or sewage systems, these conditions will obviously impact on their lives. These same families circulate around cities and impact the global state of healthcare,&#8221; says Mr. Iacovini.</p> <p>The process of reopening economies after social isolation measures has been a disaster more or less everywhere in Latin America. According to Mr. Iacovini, it was a mistake to base local plans on what European countries were doing — as realities in urban areas are drastically different between the two continents.&nbsp; &#8220;The Brazilian society has yet to face the debate around inequality and housing precarity as a violation of people&#8217;s right to their place in the public arena,&#8221; he says. &#8220;Gender, race, and social class tells us a lot about how a given group will fare in this pandemic.&#8221;</p> <h2>Argentina</h2> <p>In Argentina, 28 million people —&nbsp;or two-thirds of the population —&nbsp;live in 31 urban agglomerations. Those are areas with high population density in and around the country&#8217;s major cities, such as Buenos Aires, Mendoza, or Cordoba. According to the National Institute of Census and Statistics (Indec), of the 9.3 million households in these areas, 2.7 million lack basic sewage.&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, nearly 1 million people have no access to clean water —&nbsp;a basic need to deal with a virus which can be killed by the simple act of <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52720089" target="_blank" aria-label="undefined (opens in a new tab)" rel="noreferrer noopener">washing one&#8217;s hands</a>. Data from 2018 shows that 9.2 million Argentinian households are located in precarious areas.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/3434539" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3434539/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>&#8220;Almost all coronavirus prevention measures are related to housing conditions. And none of these basic conditions are present in low-income neighborhoods. These are areas without running water and with grave risks of flooding — which is a vector for many diseases,&#8221; points out urbanist Eduardo Reese, director of economic, social, and cultural studies at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).&nbsp;</p> <p>In June, Villa 31 —&nbsp;a shantytown close to the upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta&nbsp;—&nbsp;became notable for having an infection curve that was much steeper than richer areas of the city.&nbsp;</p> <p>Midway through July, the city&#8217;s Health Secretary, Fernán Quirós, announced a program to provide serological Covid-19 tests to Villa 31,&nbsp;53 percent of which came back positive. As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong><strong><em> </em></strong>explained in a previous piece, the higher the rate of positive tests, the more likely cases are left unidentified by health authorities.</p> <p>Mr. Reese told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that Latin American cities must not only face the Covid-19 pandemic, but also blatant inequality. &#8220;While in developed nations income is the biggest inequality multiplying mechanism there is, in Latin America, the key factor is housing.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Families in precarious houses have minimal chances to go through formal education, they face major hurdles in obtaining access to healthcare, and are more prone to missing work days due to floods and accidents,&#8221; says Mr. Reese. &#8220;Housing is key to understanding inequality.&#8221;

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Aline Gatto Boueri

Aline Gatto Boueri is a data journalist. She has had her work published by Gênero e Número, Universa UOL, Marie Claire, Projeto Colabora, among others.

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