The Work of Partners in Latin America and the Caribbean Amid COVID-19 Through 2020
Introduction: COVID-19 Status of the Latin America and Caribbean Region
As of December 31, 2020, the Latin American and Caribbean Region reported almost 16 million infections (18.75% of the world’s number) and some 510,000 deaths, representing 28% of the total deceases of the virus across the globe. After the U.S. and India, Brazil is the most affected globally, with 7.6 million infections and some 194,000 casualties. After Brazil, the countries in the Region with the highest number of cases are Colombia (in 11th place in the world) and Argentina (12): Colombia registers 1.62 million infected, Argentina reports 1.61 million infections, and Mexico follows with 1.41 million. Then, there are Peru (1 million cases and 37,500 deaths), Chile (more than 609,000 contagions and 16,599 deaths), and further on the list are Panama (more than 242,000 infected and 3,900 deaths) and Ecuador (about 211,000 cases and 14,000 deaths). Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have implemented social distancing and other mitigation measures to reduce the virus’s spread. Most governments implemented strict standards of confinement and travel restrictions. The total and partial confinements have included measures such as the closing of borders, prohibitions of transit for non-essential reasons, suspension of classes, or the implementation of virtual classrooms in schools and universities.
The socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been more significant in Latin America and the Caribbean than in any other emerging or developing Region (IMF, 2020 ). Additionally, the impact has been asymmetric, primarily affecting the most vulnerable groups. High rates of informal employment (close to 60%) and almost 40% of workers who do not have any protection or social assistance regime dramatically impact the Region. (Basto-Aguirre, Nieto-Parra, and Vázquez-Zamora, 2020 ) (OECD et al., 2020 , as quoted in https://elnuevodiario.com.do/latinoamerica-ansia-un-2021-de-recuperacion-tras-una-pandemia-devastadora/).
According to information published by Johns Hopkins University and the United Nations Development Programme, among other sources, 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have already started their vaccination campaigns against COVID-19. Some examples of those campaigns are the ones held in Brazil. The Brazilian government planned to inoculate 24 percent of the population by June 2021, using 70 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses. They also planned to administer 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine during the first half of 2021. Argentina began its vaccination campaign with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine on December 24. Cuba anticipated vaccinating its citizens during the first quarter of 2021. Cuba developed four different vaccines to immunize its population against the coronavirus: Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Mambisa, and Abdala.
Because of the pandemic, the Area Executive could not travel and fulfill the accompaniment of partners’ goals throughout the continent. The information shared in this Report relies almost exclusively upon communications and dialogues transmitted through emails, phone calls, WhatsApp, and Zoom meetings. Along with the blessings of counting with virtual communications, it is essential to establish the particular limitations of not being physically present in the Region. Most partners have limited their activities within lockdown and curfew policies throughout the year; and followed physical distancing measures as possible.
How did Global Ministries’ Partners face the COVID-19 crisis through 2020?
Churches and ecumenical organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean worked with their members and people from the community by offering spiritual accompaniment and different aids amid the pandemic. One of the main elements we observed in our reports and dialogues was the spirituality of service and compassion driving their efforts. Some of them (Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] in Paraguay and Puerto Rico, Evangelical and Reformed Church in Honduras, and the Evangelical Congregational Church in Brazil) offered online worship, biblical studies, visits, shared food, medical and safety kits with masks, gloves, and hygiene products. Also, signs of breakthrough processes of mutuality were clear among people. Paraguay, indigenous communities of El Chaco, entered into a breakthrough process of mutuality. They received medical supplies from the Friendship Mission. In return, those communities provide fruits and other products from their farms to the capital city of Asunción to assist in urban contexts.
Cultural knowledge and practice served as a valuable and useful resource in the absence of traditional medicine, mostly when addressing a new pandemic. In Haiti, the National Spiritual Council of Haitian Churches (CONASPEH) and the House of Hope used medicinal plants and community work to treat the pandemic. CONASPEH distributed food and hygiene kits in most of the departments in the country. House of Hope provided orientation to families regarding COVID-19. House of Hope staff was in the process of reopening its facilities, as they were closed between March and August 2020. In Nicaragua, the Martin Luther King Jr. Evangelical University opened a COVID-19 Clinic using natural and indigenous medicines and medical attention treatments. The clinic provides its attention to people from the capital city and surrounding communities.
COVID-19 has also presented crucial challenges to psychological and emotional health among Latin American and Caribbean communities. The general recommendation of practicing physical distancing to protect people from contracting COVID-19 often ignores the psychological aspect that, paradoxically, is essential to resist the quarantine’s necessary confinement. Along with keeping people safe from the pandemic, it has been a challenge for partners to deal with anxiety, depression, and other spiritual consequences due to physical distance. The LAC Office assisted in coordinating a series of virtual workshops around the Region to address the complexities of facing COVID-19 and alternatives to encourage resilience and resistance through troubled times. Rodrigo Martinez and Patricia Gómez, from the Shalom Center of the Pentecostal Church in Chile, partnered with Elena Huegel, from the Institute for Intercultural Research and Study (INESIN), in Mexico to design and execute those workshops. The workshops’ main objective was to develop online support groups inspired by the Restorative Justice movement by nurturing relationships as the basis of a healthy community and a critical part of any response to the disruption of a healthy community. The first groups of workshops were presented between April and May 2020. The second group started in September 2020 and concluded in January 2021. At least 50 representatives from Global Ministries’ partners participated in the workshops and all the LAC Mission Personnel.
Socioeconomic impacts due to lockdowns and curfews have adversely affected “the poorest of the poor.” In Ecuador, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for many people to work and access food items. Many communities where the Ecumenical Foundation for Integral Development, Education, and Capacity Building (FEDICE, acronym in Spanish) rely on livestock and crop production for their income. With local markets partially or entirely closed, families in FEDICE’s programs have been significantly impacted. In other Ecuador areas where FEDICE is present, their economies rely heavily on tourism, nearly non-existent. FEDICE conducted a survey with several microcredit women’s groups to determine the best response to the crisis. Women decided to work along with FEDICE by coordinating regular distributions of food and hygiene kits to families in communities who have been affected harshly by the pandemic. FEDICE worked with well-established groups, such as the New Hope women’s microcredit group in Sua, Ecuador, to deliver these kits. All involved have been careful to take preventative measures to keep everyone healthy and safe as best as possible. FEDICE has been communicating and encouraging communities to use acceptable hygienic practices to prevent the virus’s spread. FEDICE has distributed food in 19 districts to approximately 460 families, including families in San Francisco, Pupana Sur, Planchaloma, La Pradera, San Miguel, Luz De America, Cochapamba, Tucumbi Cucho, Maca Atapulo, Santa Rosa, Romerillos, and Sua. Hygiene kits have been distributed to children at seven FEDICE daycare centers in Latacunga, Huaycopungo, Tocagon, Caluqui, Pijal Alto, Huaycopungo, and Pijal Centro. In total, FEDICE distributed hygiene kits to almost 300 children.
COVID-19 has also hit migrant communities at the U.S. Mexico Border. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision sustained the “Remain in Mexico” program approved by the Trump Administration. That decision placed thousands of migrants living in “tent cities” across the Mexican side of the border, waiting for their asylum petitions to be adjudicated in the U.S. The Daniel F. Romero Center for Border Ministries and Strategies, better known as Centro Romero, continues its work of solidarity and accompaniment in the San Diego-Tijuana border. Since March 2020, Centro Romero has been working along with a coalition of grassroots organizations providing housing, medical services, and follow up in appeals regarding migratory status for 65 families at the border. Dr. Carlos Correa, Executive Director of Centro Romero, described the situation in a report. He stated, “at the moment, we have to make sure that these mothers and their children are cared for in the most suitable way possible. This includes proper housing, seasonal flu and other vaccinations, economic sustainability, and follow up on their migratory status. Once the public health emergency is over, we will relocate single mothers to their community. We hope to continue to work with them, U.S. agencies, and groups that support us in immigration proceedings.”
Another learning experience that partners, fellow churches, and ecumenical organizations have assumed through this past year consisted of joining efforts to best address the pandemic’s complexities and strengthen a common witness in mission. In the Caribbean, Six Global Ministries’ partners from Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico promoted the “Caribbean Forum on Emergency and Development.” The Puerto Rico Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches, and Social Services of the Dominican Churches joined efforts with the Latin America and the Caribbean Office of Global Ministries and Action with Churches Together (ACT) to promote a process of capacity building to deal with emergency and development in the Caribbean Area. Also, the Offices for Latin America and the Caribbean of nine denominations in the U.S. and Canada met through “Latin America and the Caribbean Companioning Encounters” to evaluate ways to collaborate and partner together in the Region. Both efforts contemplate the mutual sharing of information, analysis, forms of cooperation, and mutual solidarity action in the Region.
Disaster relief in the Region through 2020
Hurricane season struck hard in some of the countries through this past year. The LAC Area Office engaged in conversations with Global Ministries partners in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Colombia as they suffered the passing of two hurricanes, ETA (October 31, 2020) and IOTA (November 13, 2020). Both hurricanes struck Central America with less than a month of difference between them. The hurricanes passed through Central America with sustained winds between 75 and 155 mph, storming through Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, entering into Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, moving westward with an overwhelming amount of rain that produced many mudslides. At least 30 persons died in Nicaragua and Honduras. More than 50 thousand people were evacuated. Most of the infrastructure in cities like San Pedro Sula in Honduras were heavily damaged. Also, we received reports from our Colombian and Jamaican partners regarding the impacts of both Hurricanes in their respective countries. Colombia reported the almost complete destruction of the Providencia, Catalina, and San Andrés islands. At least 98% of the infrastructure of those islands were destroyed by IOTA. The United Church in Jamaica and Cayman Islands, our Partner in Jamaica, shared how those hurricanes saw them experiencing heavy rainfall and flooding. Citizens were marooned, and roads were washed away in some of their hilly and flood-prone areas. Most of the people affected live in rural, farming, and low-income communities. Global Ministries provided resources for food, clothing, medicines, pastoral, and spiritual accompaniment. Our Mission Personnel in the area had the opportunity to provide virtual accompaniment to several families and churches located in the affected areas. We recognize the solidarity of Cindy Moraga, Carlos Sediles, Ricardo Mayol, and Elena Huegel for their efforts.
The work for Peace and Justice
On October 15, 2020, the Area Executive participated in a Webinar called The Impact of the Trump Administration on the Churches in Cuba. Leaders from Cuban churches and ecumenical organizations shared with the participants regarding current issues, including the difficulties of everyday life in terms of food and basic necessities, the impact of the blockade, the role of Cuban medical personnel around the world, and the need for solidarity between churches in Cuba and the United States. Congressman James Patrick McGovern, a member of the United States House of Representatives, participated in the meeting, along with the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC). There was a sense of how little we in the U.S. have accomplished our advocacy work to end the blockade against Cuba and normalize relations. As a matter of fact, things have worsened in the last months, personal supplies, fuel shortages, lack of access to medicines, ventilators, and medical inventory to deal with COVID-19 and other medical conditions. A quote from the Reverend Joel Ortega Dopico, CIC’s Executive Secretary, put the meeting back into its just perspective. He said: “our best accomplishment is that we are together on this, regardless of how successful we could be in our campaign. We know that you pray for us as we pray for you and we feel accompanied by you.”
The General Ministers and Presidents of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the two Co-Executives of Global Ministries, and the Advocacy Office colleagues met on March 8, 2020, to discuss the most recent crisis in Venezuela regarding the mercenary incursion and economic sanctions of the country. An outcome of the meeting was the Statement promoted by the two GNPs and signed by the NCC in the U.S.A. The NCC based its expression on the same themes as Global Ministries, to focus the call into the Venezuelan crisis: the ceasing of any military intervention by the U.S. or third countries, eliminating economic sanctions, and the respect for the self-determination of the people of Venezuela.
Ways of virtual accompaniment in times of physical distancing
COVID-19 was not an obstacle for Global Ministries to “travel” within the Region and show its solidarity with its partners. One of the most valuable experiences through the pandemic was organizing pilgrimage using virtual tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and web pages. One of those experiences was LAC Office and People-to-People Pilgrimage Program’s Virtual Pilgrimage to Colombia. The purpose of the “travel” was to affirm our presence and solidarity with the Mennonite Association for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz) and the Peace and Justice Commission (also known as the Commission for Restoration, Life, and Peace) of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL). The pilgrimage was held on September 21-26, 2020. Participants from churches in the U.S. “traveled” through afro-descendant Indigenous communities in the San Juan River, Chocó, as new developments related to the armed conflict and social effects of COVID-19 pandemic affect the people’s life and well-being. The pilgrimage held synchronous dialogues between the Region’s leaders and delegates from Global Ministries to share experiences and testimonies based on cultural richness, ancestral traditions, and liturgical celebrations for reconciliation. The group had the opportunity to “visit” through six towns in the Middle San Juan Chocoano to deliver aid, document cases of human rights violations, and learn about initiatives for peace, development, and reconciliation of the residents’ churches. They also reflected on advocacy-based collective, biblical reflections, and proposals to make visible the armed conflict situations and the urgent measures that the residents propose to the State and the international community.
The other virtual experience organized for this period was a Virtual Observation of Legislative Elections in Venezuela. On December 6, 2020, seven representatives from the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean were brought together by the Evangelical Pentecostal Union of Venezuela (UEPV) and assisted by the Venezuelan Human Rights Organization, SURES, participated in this innovative way to affirm Human Rights and Democracy. The International Commission of Churches and Ecumenical Agencies included the LAC Area Executive, Mission Personnel Executive, Catherine Nichols, Valdir Franca, PCUSA Area Coordinator for Latin America, and Christie Neufeldt, United Church of Canada’s Regional Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. Three representatives from our Global Ministries’ Partners in the Region were part of the delegation: Bishop Medardo Gómez, the Salvadorian Lutheran Synod, Carola Tron, Evangelical Waldensian Church of River Plate (Uruguay), and Lorenzo Mota King, Social Services for the Dominican Churches. The delegation prepared themselves for the experience through advanced training about the Venezuelan electoral system’s specifics and the implications for respect and affirmation of human rights. The group had three moments of observation in real-time (morning, noon, and afternoon), having the opportunity to accompany UEPV, who placed their own leadership to conduct and safeguard poll centers. They observed three poll centers in Zulia State and the two others in Caracas. They also interviewed voters, electoral authorities, law enforcement officials, and church leaders by virtual means. Participants signed a Report, which was published in the Global Ministries’ Mission Update. The Report included descriptions of the neatness of the process, the guarantees of biosecurity, the respect to confidentiality in the exercise of the right to vote, a peaceful, civic, and respectful process for everybody, especially the elderly.