On Feb. 26, 2021, the Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages hosted their first Global Passport Series event of the year centered around how the COVID-19 pandemic deepened inequality in Africa and the Americas. The event, moderated by Drexel Assistant Teaching Professor of French Parfait Kouacou, included two expert panelists to cover the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has initiated in the world: Mausi Segun and Dr. Jorge E. Cuellar. The event generated much discussion and debate over the topic as over 100 participants joined the virtual meeting.
Mausi Segun, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, highlighted some of the greatest challenges African countries face in the wake of the pandemic. According to Segun, the pandemic has exacerbated Africa’s existing challenges.
“The lockdowns and ensuing economic downturn have had devastating impacts on lives and livelihoods,” Segun stated. “Deepening inequalities around access to and opportunities for basic social and economic rights.”
Among the challenges mentioned were the wealth gap, access to healthcare, food and housing, and education. Even prior to the start of the pandemic, Africa faced high rates of poverty and rising inequality. Many governments swiftly implemented quarantine and social distancing policies to slow down the spread of the virus, which has limited growth and access to opportunities across the continent.
Inequitable access to healthcare has been one of the chief issues facing African countries as the pandemic exposed many gaps and faults within the system’s services and equipment. Segun argues that poor healthcare infrastructure is largely due to a lack of investment, inability to retain skilled workers, and limited resources for essential medicines.
As COVID-19 vaccines are produced and distributed in recent weeks, Segun noted that around 78 percent of the doses are given to people living in Europe, the United States, and China. As a result, Africans are concerned about access to vaccines in the upcoming months.
Segun offered some of her recommendations for change, which encouraged African governments to increase spending on social programs, improve transparency and oversight to root out corruption and mismanagement of funds or resources, and provide universal social protections.
Dr. Cuellar, Assistant Professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth University, spoke of similar challenges and suggestions about the current situation in Latin America. Among his concerns was the rise of corruption and authoritarianism across Latin American countries. In particular, he focused on the story of El Salvador under the rule of President Nayib Bukele. Prior to the pandemic, Bukele led an insurrection on the legislative palace of El Salvador to push for a $109 million dollar loan for an anti-crime bill, representing a warning for what was to come in the future.
As Cuellar states, this loan was meant to be used for the purchasing of military and law enforcement equipment, but it demonstrated how the President was willing to use the military for his own political ends at the expense of the people of El Salvador.
“This democratic erosion was deepened with the coronavirus crisis,” Cuellar explained.
The pandemic served as the perfect opportunity for leaders like Bukele to expand military police apparatus under the guise of public health initiatives. While the people of El Salvador have been promised further intervention to support them, the public has generally not been consulted on many public policy decisions. This lack of public transparency has led to public health and government control being used in a very narrow application via the use of repression and media spectacles.
Cuellar shared some of the same social and economic challenges Segun mentioned during her presentation, including increasing inequality, and food and housing insecurities among other issues.
“People took to the streets to wave the white flag; a phenomena soliciting help was seen across El Salvador and Guatemala,” stated Cuellar.
People from the most marginalized communities have been on the streets, waving a white flag of mercy and asking for food.
Cuellar further explains that the pandemic has particularly exposed the neoliberal illusion of abundance and the politics of scarcity that come along with it. As he describes, the pandemic has demonstrated how the already oppressed are the ones truly at the mercy of COVID-19.
The moderated discussion, led by Professor Kouacou, featured questions from the audience, many of whom were curious to learn more about how to move forward given the current challenges facing these regions of the world. While much of the information shared by Segun and Cuellar was upsetting to hear for many attendees, the GPS event certainly fulfilled its goal of facilitating global conversations and building engagement with students, faculty, and panelists.