(OSV News) – Despite Latin America's economy having grown in the past two years, following a sharp contraction in 2020, the region has yet to overcome the scarring impact that COVID-19 left on its social fabric, according to a report released by CELAM, the Latin American bishops' council.
The document, titled "Latin American and Caribbean Societies in the Post-Pandemic Context," noted that the region's GDP grew 6.8% in 2021 (after the -6.2% drop in 2020) and 3.6% last year. However, poverty and malnutrition levels in the region have yet to drop to pre-pandemic levels, and the number of formal jobs does not exceed the number of jobs recorded in 2019. A slowing down in growth also is expected to continue in 2023 and 2024. Meanwhile, political polarization is growing in many countries, as well as dissatisfaction with the region's democracies.
The more than 100-page report by CELAM's Knowledge Management Center presented figures compiled by various international entities and pollsters and urged believers not to be indifferent to the social and political crisis the region is going through.
It also pointed out that Latin America and the Caribbean countries will take years to recover from the pandemic if their governments "do not take immediate action to promote a recovery process."
"We are facing a cascade of crises that has exacerbated the inequalities and shortages in the region," the report said.
During an Aug. 24 presentation sponsored by CELAM, Agustín Salvia, the study's coordinator, said that the region needs to grow, not just with the production of wealth, but "with policies that allow the redistribution of those profits to the most disadvantaged ... not to give them more money, but to generate more work."
Despite GDP growth in the last two years, mainly driven by the export of raw materials, CELAM's Economic Commission for Latin America estimated that, in 2022, 32% of Latin America's inhabitants – 201 million people – were living in poverty, while 13% – 82 million people – were in extreme poverty, and did not have enough income to buy a basic food basket.
The region's extreme poverty rate had not risen to 13% in two decades, the CELAM report noted.
The situation is not easy when it comes to employment either. According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, when the report was put together, the unemployment rate in the region would be around 9.3% in 2022, still surpassing the unemployment rate of 7.9% before the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, ILO estimates that half of the jobs in the region are informal.
In recent years, malnutrition also has risen in the region, according to figures compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. These indicated that, in Latin America, 14.2% of the population experienced severe food insecurity – not consuming food for a day or more – in 2021, in contrast to 11.7% worldwide. Before the pandemic, severe food insecurity affected 9.9% of the region's inhabitants, according to the CELAM report.
Meanwhile, frustration with the region's governments is growing, giving way to politicians with radical proposals to address problems such as crime and poverty.
Although, in 2021, six out of 10 Latin Americans said in an annual survey conducted by Latinobarómetro that democracy is the best form of government, only 43% said they were satisfied with this system of government. In addition, only one in three people said they
believe their basic rights are protected.
"This is an alarming statistic," the CELAM stated. "It implies distrust in institutions and skepticism regarding democracy."
For Salvia, who also directs CELAM's pastoral socio-anthropological observatory, these figures indicate an urgent need for governments to increase social investment through consensus among different sectors.
"The main weakness is not in the people" who have worked hard to get out of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, he said, "but in our leaders, who have not been able to understand and represent what is happening in the social field."
In this context, the report suggests that the Catholic Church ratify its preferential option for the poor and the construction of societies of solidarity and go into the most disadvantaged communities -- not only to help solve material needs – but also to foster hope and an encounter with Jesus Christ.
"It is not enough to reopen the temples and provide access to activities in the different ecclesial scenarios; today, more than ever we must be a Church that goes out," said the report.
Monica Chávez Aviña, the president of the Mexican Institute of Christian Social Doctrine, stated during the CELAM live presentation that the difficult panorama the region is experiencing presents a challenge for civil society.
"We too have to say enough is enough, no more to this situation of injustice we are living," said the theologian.
Chávez Aviña assured that the report also calls people to "look at the suffering of others, look for the causes and do everything possible so that these causes disappear."