On top of the backslide of economic and social rights in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an influx of immigrants from Central America. Most Central American migrants are coming from three of the region’s seven countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Poverty, food insecurity, violence, corruption, and lack of opportunities have been top reasons Central Americans migrate North. Joe Biden’s proposed Citizenship Act includes a 4$ billion plan aimed to address the root causes of migration in these 3 countries.
Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador were under confinement measures for four months, which severely shocked their economies. All income levels were impacted by COVID-19. With limited fiscal space, the countries struggled to create effective responses to the long-term effects of COVID-19. Subsidy programs were not sufficient to address the impact of the pandemic. El Salvador experienced a 9.8% increase in extreme poverty, while Honduras saw a 5.5% and Guatemala a 2.1% increase.
Women and children constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in the region, as violence, femicides and lack of application for the rule of law affects them specifically. COVID-19 has taken over 20,000 lives in Central America and weakened structures affecting the livelihood of its residents. Guatemala and Honduras have faced even more struggles. Environmental disasters resulting from hurricanes have devastated infrastructures, the economy, and many lives.
Although Honduras had registered the second-highest economic growth rate in Central America prior to COVID-19, the country continued to face high levels of poverty and inequality. In March 2020, Honduras mandated that the entire population of 10 million go into a complete lockdown.
Honduras, (as well as Nicaragua, and Guatemala) confronted the pandemic, along with the devastating impacts of the Category 4 hurricanes, Iota and Eta. Two days before the hurricane, the Honduran government continued its focus on promoting a tourism fair to revive the economy. This measure was met with criticism as many locals believed that authorities failed to take preventative measures to ensure the safety of the population.
In the aftermath of these hurricanes, Honduras faced a COVID-19 case increase of over 2100 cases– partially due to displaced persons rapidly spreading the virus. Hundreds of families affected by the hurricane were crammed into overcrowded temporary shelters with no COVID-19 protections.
The Honduran economy and the farming industry took another hit with the aftermath of the hurricanes. Many had no help from the government, were left homeless and without jobs, and lost everything they owned. Sandro Mejía, who has been living in Honduras for over 20 years reflected on what to do next:
“Yesterday was my 58th birthday and I couldn’t even celebrate with a Coca-Cola. I have nothing, I’m broke now. First I lost money due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then these two storms hit. You can’t live in this country anymore… I’ve been out of work since the pandemic, when everything shut down. I haven’t worked for almost a year now because there are no jobs in this country. We’ve lost everything… we’re being buried alive here.”
Mejía continues to say, “The people have no rights, no health, no work, no nothing. The only option I have left is to emigrate to the United States. I couldn’t get in when Donald Trump was in charge… he didn’t give anybody a chance to work there, but now things are going to change with Joe Biden.”
Unaccompanied minor migrants arriving at the U.S. border from Honduras say they were unable to continue on with school and tell stories of their parents losing their jobs. At the end of 2019, around 375,000 Honduran children relied on the public education system, and even prior to the pandemic, 14% of school-aged children were not receiving a formal education.
Once their lockdown came into place, all formal education shut down, leaving students with no school for months. In June 2020, a Honduran human rights organization issued a statement noting that nearly two million students ages 3 to 17 were dropping out of the education system due to the lack of internet for education and the economic stress by COVID-19. With the addition of the hurricanes that devastated the region and the absence of urgent action, more children are likely to become malnourished and drop out of school.
Violence against women in Honduras has been on the rise. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), during April when Honduras had a complete lockdown, there were over 10,000 women reports of physical violence.
The confinement triggered by the pandemic increased gender-based violence, while the femicide units tasked with investigating these acts were unable to reach all communities to register complaints.
The Honduran government applied its funding to reinforce the military, a measure that has received critiques for its abuses. An audit of government purchases for COVID-19 medical supplies showed that tens of millions of dollars worth of supplies had gone missing.
On March 21 the Salvadoran president announced that 75% of Salvadoran homes would receive roughly $300 in subsidies for COVID-19 impacts. El Salvador faced job losses as strict mobility measures were set in place to contain the virus. The country’s economy relies on remittances, which is a lifeline for many individuals and families in the region.
As felt by many other countries, Salvadorans experienced a 40% decrease in remittances at the start of the pandemic. However, remittances hit a record high at the end of 2020- which helped families affected by the hurricanes.
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, ordered law enforcement to send those who violated the COVID-19 to specific centers that were reported as overcrowded and unsanitary. Overall, the measures taken by Bukele to contain the spread of the virus received high approval ratings from the public.
On May 5, the National Assembly approved a $1 billion plan to stimulate economic recovery, including measures for loans for small businesses and financing for owners. On April 14, the IMF gave El Salvador a $389 million emergency assistance loan, the first from the agency to the country in over 30 years. The IMF’s evaluation of El Salvador recognized improvements in structural reforms, policy frameworks and the political transition of power, which the organization states, “laid the foundations for sustained growth.”
However the IMF warned that “public debt at about 70 percent of GDP is high and leaves little room for funding new initiatives unless structural measures are implemented. It remains the main vulnerability of the economy.” The organization advised on building on these achievements while addressing fiscal vulnerabilities, including, “strengthen the governance, anticorruption and AML/CFT frameworks, front-load fiscal consolidation measures of about 2 percent of GDP over 2019-20; 2, adopt policies that raise long-term output, and reduce crime and informality.”
The IMF also urged El Salvador to “improve the governance and anticorruption frameworks by increasing the fiscal transparency of the 2020 budget laws, strengthening audit and spending controls, and promptly implementing electronic invoicing.”
In response to COVID-19, the executive branch was given flexible purchasing rules for medical supply and services, though investigations of officials, including the health minister, identified improper purchases. The Corruption Perception Index revealed 17 active investigations of government contracts and other irregularities in COVID-19-related purchases valued at $155 million, according to Revista Factum.
Further, the administration dissolved five secretariats: Social Inclusion; Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anti-Corruption, Technical and Planning, Governance and Vulnerability and launched two new ones: Trade and Investment, and Innovation. The Ministry of Local Development was tasked with coordinating the Ciudad Mujer program.
Due to COVID-19, many have lost their livelihoods and salaries as confinement led to reports of violence. Unicef USA has been working with different municipalities that have high rates of violence and high rates of returning migrants.
The organization has noted, “many teenage girls are already mothers. Many have been victims of sexual abuse. Many feel there are no opportunities for them here. They feel they cannot get a good education.” El Salvador experienced high rates of domestic violence during the pandemic, with many of them underreported.
However, Unicef also noted that their programs have received “lots of engagement with local authorities and local NGOs. [Local] authorities are interested in [UNICEF’s] programs. They are open to adopting them and to extending them.” Unicef is focused on strengthening the social network; giving small grants to students conditioned upon them continuing to go to school, and have provided seed funds to the creation of a business, and job training.
Human Rights Watch has critiqued the government of undermining press freedoms and lashing out at journalists. However, Bukele announced on Twitter that all journalists, including freelance journalists from El Salvador are considered second-line personnel and are prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Bukele’s actions have been criticized by human rights organizations, but his approval rating is one of the highest of any Salvadoran president and his popularity continues to be strong through the pandemic.
Tropical storms have exposed the vulnerability and lack of infrastructure in El Salvador. Strict mobility restrictions made it difficult for humanitarian responders to access the communities and distribute proper aid, including COVID-19 protections. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that more than 330,000 people faced food insecurities during the summer months.
Prior to the pandemic, Guatemala saw a deficit of 3.2 million jobs. The further deterioration of formal employment and steady income came with lockdowns, resulting in a reduction of 118,00 formal private-sector jobs at the start of the pandemic. The most vulnerable of these being those with income from informal occupations, who do not have access to typical social safety nets.
Indigenous communities, especially women, continue to face challenges with selling their products at local markets. The Guatemalan Congress sent out three fiscal packages in 2020 which focused on increasing healthcare resources and cash transfers to different sectors of the economy. The National Emergency and Economic Recovery Plan also waived taxes on medical supplies, increased the coverage and amount of electricity subsidies, and fostered low-income housing.
Since the discontinued adherence to the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, there has been limited accountability for government corruption and abuses of power. Former President, Jimmy Morales declined to extend the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2018. Current President Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January 2020, supported ending the mandate.
Human Rights Watch states that Alejandro Giammattei has expressed hostility toward the press and has not been transparent regarding facts surrounding COVID-19 cases. The organization reports 60 complaints of threats and attacks on journalists by security forces, public officials, and individuals. Some political and military leaders have attempted to dismantle Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, a state body that upholds the Guatemalan democracy.
COVID-19 and hurricanes have impacted Guatemala on all fronts. During the 2020 summer, those facing hunger doubled and malnutrition is on the rise. By mid-December, the hurricanes left close to 115,000 Guatemalans in unofficial shelters. The hurricanes killed dozens, destroyed infrastructure, and flooded farmlands creating a hunger crisis.
According to Admiral Craig S. Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, which performed lifesaving rescue missions before focusing on aiding people in hard-to-access regions in Guatemala and Honduras,
‘The devastation is beyond compare. When you think about Covid, plus the double punch of these two massive, major hurricanes back to back—there are some estimates of up to a decade to recover.’”
The Guatemalan healthcare system was not prepared for this pandemic and access to COVID-19 prevention practices is limited. The most vulnerable members of society are rural indigenous communities, which already faced extreme levels of malnutrition and were identified as high-risk populations.
The crisis exposed the absence of state services such as health, education, and nutrition in Indigenous regions. The neglect these regions face from the government is linked to an attitude that Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, reports as a lack of care for indigenous communities:
“Indigenous women are keenly aware that the COVID crisis has worsened the deep structural crisis they have long faced in Guatemala. COVID exposes the absence of state services in indigenous areas and neglect of health, education, and nutrition. Even during the crisis, the government is not helping its most vulnerable people. Its focus has been on the cities, not rural areas. Indigenous women, who live mainly in rural areas, have always been neglected because they carry the triple burden of being poor, being female, and being indigenous.”
The pandemic has increased migration for Guatemalans. The economic situation in Guatemala has grown more acute under the recent crises. With such hardships this last year, the prevailing drivers of migration- poverty, violence, natural disasters, and family reunification- continue to push people to head North. Thousands of asylum-seeking Guatemalans have joined caravans escaping the recent increase in violence and economic hardship. Seeking a life in the United States, implies countless risks, including migrants’s own lives, in the long, dangerous journey.
What the Northern Triangle Needs
Fleeing violence and poverty in a region hammered with back-to-back hurricanes, will continue to be a strong motivator for migrating North. Climate extremes that have caused food insecurity and agricultural devastations have also motivated migrants to leave the Northern Triangle.
Joe Biden has developed a $4 billion regional strategy to mobilize private investment in the region, improve security and rule of law, address endemic corruption, prioritize poverty reduction and promote economic development. Specific goals that relate to COVID-19 and recent climate disasters include modernizing the Northern Triangle’s infrastructure so that industries can compete globally, working with the private and public sector to fund job training and poverty prevention programs, promote transitions to clean energy as well as climate change adaptation and resilience, ensuring access to justice and support services for victims of domestic violence by strengthening prosecutors’ abilities to pursue domestic violence cases, and funding programs that combat malnutrition- particularly in Guatemala’s Western Highlands and in the dry corridor along the Pacific coast of Central America.
However, critics contend that the plan is more focused on preventing migrants from coming to the United States than on solving real humanitarian, environmental and development problems.
For its part, the Salvadoran government has implemented COVID-19 employment programs to provide economic aid to those who lost their jobs. However, El Salvador’s economic recovery plans need to do more to reach its youth. Fusades, a Salvadoran think tank that promotes ideas for humane and supportive policies in El Salvador propose the following:
“Support youth ventures and hire young people… On the other hand, it is important to invest in skills training for work, which increase the employability of youth, and expand access to social protection for those whose income from work has been affected. Finally, it is essential to promote dialogue and social coordination for the design and implementation of post-crisis recovery policies, involving young people themselves in these processes, to define and address more precisely the problems that are most pressing for them.”
Fusades also recognizes the widening gender gap and encourage more social protections that promote joint responsibility in the home.
Many NGOs in the regions have been working on the ground to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 and other disasters. The NGO Ayuda en Acción has been working with local governments and institutions to help those impacted by COVID-19 in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In Honduras, Ayuda en Acción has been reaching out to families in Gracias a Dios, a region with a majority of the population from the Indigenous Miskito ethnic group.
They have been providing food aid packages that are tailored to the area’s traditions and COVID-19 medical prevention measures. The UN Humanitarian Country Team of Honduras has also provided food assistance, medical protection, and agricultural inputs for those most affected by Covid-19 and climate disasters.
Hunger, especially for women and children, has been a central issue in Guatemala long before the pandemic. Oxford Committee for Famine Relief has been in Guatemala in collaboration with local NGOs to minimize the risk of transmission for COVID-19 and distribute food and personal hygiene products.
The World Food Program has been financially aiding government institutions that make efforts to prevent malnutrition in children and working with rural communities in the Food For Assets initiative that prepares them for climate shocks and stresses.
The Salvadoran American Humanitarian Foundation (SAHF) Libras de Amor program has been providing food security and income generation through land production and farming skill development initiatives. SAHF has also supplied over 500 hospitals, clinics, health centers, orphanages, nursing homes, schools, and other non-government agencies with medical supplies, school resources, and other staples. Agriculture has been impacted by the effects of climate change and this has hurt those who depend on its income.
Women in El Salvador, backed by the World Food Program, turned their traditional artistry into a business. They have been able to shift their business from crops to a cooperative that weaves hammocks. Their business is able to support the livelihoods of these women that had been suffering during the loss of jobs and pandemic lockdowns. When droughts led to food insecurity, this women’s cooperative joined efforts to reinvent themselves.
These and many other humanitarian responses have been on the ground working with the most vulnerable communities in this region. Given the lack of resources, infrastructure, and opportunity compounded by hurricanes and extreme climate changes, supporting organizations that seek to provide much needed aid will be vital to alleviating the crisis and rebuilding their communities. However, those who choose to come to the United States should always be welcomed and given a fair and fast process to citizenship.