Well-being weakened in Latin America as pandemic hits, data show

The COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing many of the improvements in people’s well-being achieved over the past two decades in Latin America, as well as deepening existing challenges, according to a new OECD report.

How’s Life in Latin America? says the pandemic struck the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region hard, particularly the most vulnerable groups in society. COVID-19 has caused  a high number of deaths and touched every aspect of people’s well-being.

The pandemic hit at a time of rising vulnerabilities in a number of areas: income growth and poverty reduction were already weakening; employment was falling and unemployment rising; and people’s satisfaction with their living conditions and their trust in public institutions were declining. The report says sharp falls in life satisfaction and social connections between 2019 and 2020 underscore the human cost of the crisis.

Using the OECD’s well-being framework, which focuses on people and their communities rather than the economy as a goal in itself, the report looks at 11 aspects of current well-being – income and consumption, work and job quality, housing, health, knowledge and skills, quality of the environment, subjective well-being, safety, work-life balance, social connections and civil engagement. It also looks at resources for future well-being  – natural, economic, human and social capital.

People in the LAC region generally experienced gains in material well-being in several areas in the two decades before the pandemic. Household consumption spending rose on average by a third between 2000 and 2019. Life expectancy improved as did secondary education attainment and the number of households with access to drinking water.

But alongside these positive developments, the end of the commodity price boom resulted in progress on material living conditions stagnating, or even worsening, after 2014. People’s own perceptions of their living standards weakened while the pace of reductions in income inequality also slowed. Poverty reduction in several countries stalled after 2015, while employment levels fell among those aged 25 or over.  Unemployment was already rising before the pandemic, the report shows.

Once the pandemic hit, life satisfaction generally dropped more sharply in Latin America than across OECD countries, and particularly among the most vulnerable – women, the young, people living in rural areas and the lower-educated. 

In the wake of the pandemic, it is estimated that the number of people falling below the absolute poverty line across the region as a whole rose by 22 million to 209 million in 2020, using the UN’s ECLAC Commission definition. Lockdowns and containment measures to mitigate the pandemic have been particularly tough for low-paid and informal workers. As many as 38 % of all workers (and 61 % of vulnerable informal workers) in the region do not have access to any kind of social protection, the report says.

With schools remaining closed for more than 41 weeks in many of the countries, remote learning solutions were put in place across the region. However, their effectiveness was hampered by the fact that  46 % of children aged 5-12 live in households with no connectivity and fewer than 14 % of poor students (those living with less than USD 5.5 a day) in primary education have a computer connected to the Internet at home.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of access to health care, for both physical and mental health conditions. Already some 25% of the population in Latin America did not have access to essential health-care before the pandemic.

The report says improving well-being needs to be put at the heart of recovery plans to tackle both pre-existing and new challenges that have emerged. It also suggests that broader measures of success, beyond purely macroeconomic ones, ought to inform the design and evaluation of policies. Progress in this direction was made thanks to the adoption and implementation of SDGs in the last few years. However, more needs to be done to ensure that well-being considerations guide policy priorities.

To read the report or to find out more about the OECD’s work on well-being, go to How’s Life in Latin America

Working with over 100 countries, the OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to preserve individual liberty and improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

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