Cities, COVID-19 and Commons in Latin America


Leticia Merino | Simone Buratti

Aug, 2020

Now, more than ever, we need an effective alliance between governments and communities. Given the precariousness that many populations in developing countries currently face, it is worth inquiring as to the possibility of providing public and common goods «beyond markets and states» as part of collective community action. [1] This is particularly important to consider given the case of Latin-American cities, [2] where public community spaces are few and in precarious areas, and democratic practices are constantly hampered. Which drivers of collective action are found in urban contexts where mutual knowledge and trust remain scarce, and where urban communities (if in existence) tend to be based in weak linkages and limited social capital? How can commons-building movements be inclusive or attentive to the needs of vulnerable populations? Which commons are needed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and post-pandemic in Latin America? The COVID-19 crisis can serve to broaden awareness of complex, multi-sectoral and largely still imperceptible processes, in which different social forces move asymmetrically in achieving the common good. Cities are critical spaces within which such processes could emerge.

An increasingly urban world: the Global South and the Commons

According to United Nations data, 55% of the global population lives in cities, and in 2050, the world’s urban population is expected to rise to 68% of its total. Most of this population resides in countries classified as «developing»: largely former colonies still in the process of overcoming positions of subordination in the world economy. In considering this, it is key to recognize how the value of the city derives from life in common.

Photo_ Martín Campello_ Cartonero

Historically, cities have offered opportunities for access to education, health and employment, or have provided a setting in which creativity, innovation and political progressiveness can take place. Hence the great waves of urbanization in recent centuries. Good local governments, but also collective action, are critical for the creation and preservation of the most precious «assets» of cities: these include health services, education, knowledge, cultural resources, green areas and even security, which may become «commons.» [3] We understand commons as goods, benefits or services that are collectively used, created or preserved, whose governance requires collective action. [4] Collective action, or «communing,» can intensify when people organize: against a common adversary or adversity, like the current struggle against police brutality or collective action against urban policies of water privatization in North American cities; around a common purpose, like neighbors’ organization to ensure street security; or around the use and management of a common good. In the later example, this could mean the case of natural commons as green areas protected and maintained by local groups, or alternatively, the case of knowledge commons, including open source software, Wikipedia or traditional medical knowledge. In these examples, the experience of «communing» makes the provision of goods and services under communities’ management more inclusive and responsive to their conditions and needs, and less subordinate to market-imposed rules.

In this understanding, some goods are defined as public, including those mentioned above; public property or that of public interest, which is used, valued and managed by communities, can become «commons.» Without those communities that act upon them, commons do not exist.

Commons are not merely resources. They do not exist independently of the social relations surrounding them. Rather, they recreate and strengthen communities and trust among community members, an important social asset in building new commons and facing new struggles. 

Commons are not merely resources. They do not exist independently of the social relations surrounding them. Rather, they recreate and strengthen communities and trust among community members, an important social asset in building new commons and facing new struggles.

Commons are composed of the people that take part in collective action, the common goods or collective purposes and the rules that set limits and distribute costs, benefits, responsibilities and access. Commons and communities are far from exclusive to rural life or indigenous people. They result from the experiences of cooperation, agreement, consensus building and rule-making that are the bases of social life; hence, they are present in the most diverse social and ecological contexts. Collective action, communities and commons can also be an important means by which to address–and seek to reverse–the effects of elite capture.

In examining communities within this context and specifically in the case of cities, the governments of megacities face the obstacle of scale and segregation. About 15% of the world’s urban population resides in 42 mega-cities with at least 10 million inhabitants, and in many cases, even more. Large urban concentrations are more frequent in «developing» countries: 26 of these large centers are located in Asia (seven in mainland China), with four in Africa and six in Latin America; only three are located in Europe, and two in North America. Alongside North America, Latin America is the most urbanized region on the planet, with 81% of the population living in urban areas. [5] Decision-making processes tend to be strongly concentrated when it comes to the management of urban services, goods and spaces, with a gap between those who make decisions and those affected by them, resulting in unequal access to these goods. The governments of megacities are also prone to elite capture and poor accountability. In short, they face greater challenges in achieving true democratic governance, particularly in the highly unequal societies that exist in many Latin American cities. Today, 24% of the world’s urban inhabitants, around one billion people, live in slums around the megacities of Asia, Africa and Latin America, with Latin American cities including Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Lima, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. They jointly account for 17% of the Latin-American population. Rapid urbanization over the course of the last half century in Latin America took place in the context of insufficient or scarce resources to meet the needs of employment, housing, education, culture, health, quality and safety for both young and growing populations, many of them living in conditions of deprivation and precariousness.

In the past 30 years of structural adjustment policies, many Latin American governments (which never attained the welfare state configuration that Western European states assumed during the post-war years) largely abandoned the responsibility of providing fundamental public goods to their citizens. In many countries and cities, the provision of health, education, security and water were privatized, taken charge of by private corporations. This process meant vast groups of people were excluded from access to education, means for livelihood, security, information, culture and even water. This occurred to the extent that, in the perception of many Latin Americans, access to these services and goods are no longer rights, but privileges enjoyed only by minorities. These processes have also resulted in an unprecedented concentration of wealth among the already rich elite, whose living standards drastically contrast with those of most of their fellow citizens.

Urban commons are regarded by many as a means to provide goods and services to city inhabitants when the state or the markets fail to do so. Collective action takes the form of social movements to fight against exclusion or depletion of water, urban homes or cultural spaces. Sometimes this collective action is directed towards shared purposes (e.g. changing privatization laws, defending or restoring local natural resources, or obtaining access to medicine in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic). Moreover, if the efforts are successful, they may develop into governance structures to provide and manage urban goods. Nevertheless, commons and urban commons are not a panacea. On the one hand, states remain responsible for providing basic public goods to their citizens. And on the other, urban commons can exclude vulnerable populations and be largely appropriated by the educated middle class, as among other advantages, this group can more easily afford the cost of participation.

COVID-19 and commons in Latin America

As of June 2020, 90% of those who had fallen ill with the COVID-19 virus lived in cities. The transmission of the disease has occurred, to a great extent, in large city neighborhoods with precarious conditions. It is not surprising that the impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America are particularly intense. Six months after the pandemic began in the region, in August 2020, Latin America had the highest number of reported cases in the world, with the majority of the infected between ages 25 and 50.  Latin America accounted for 64% of global deaths, despite the fact that Latin Americans only make up 13% of the world population. This high fatality, despite Latin America’s largely youthful populations, resulted from factors including: poor health services coverage; the high prevalence of informal employment in the service sector making it practically impossible to remain home and reduce social contact; the lack of social security; and finally, the high prevalence of comorbidities of diabetes, obesity and hypertension, especially among the urban poor.

It is not surprising that the impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America are particularly intense. Six months after the pandemic began in the region, in August 2020, Latin America had the highest number of reported cases in the world, with the majority of the infected between ages 25 and 50.  Latin America accounted for 64% of global deaths, despite the fact that Latin Americans only make up 13% of the world population.

When the pandemic arrived in the region, most countries were already facing serious economic hardship. Economic performance has largely drawn from extractive activities (mining and industrial intensive agriculture) in the past 30 years, with little economic diversification, manufacturing and production capacity. There was never a full recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008. During the 1990s and 2000s, the prices of natural commodities (minerals, oil, soy, biofuels) were exceptionally high, driven by the exceptional economic growth in China and other emerging economies. During those years, some countries–notably Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina–elected progressive, socially oriented governments that invested in public goods, improving the living conditions of many. Nevertheless, following the financial crisis, economic growth stalled. Populist and right-wing governments were elected, and they cut public expenses and reverted the previous social gains. This made it clear that the structural economic changes that never fully took place were in fact very much necessary in order to achieve larger equity and more stable improvement of living conditions for the majority of the populations. From 2014 to 2019, the average economic growth in the region was only 0.4%. Fiscal revenues, already low, decreased, and public debt accounted for 45% of the 2019 regional gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, in July 2020, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that the pandemic will create an average reduction of 9.1% in the regional GDP during that 2014-2019 time frame, with some countries experiencing a decrease as great as 17%, as in the case of Mexico. ECLAC also estimates that at least 45 million Latin Americans will fall below the poverty line, increasing the regional number of poor to at least 230 million people. [6]

Poor economic performance means extreme consequences for underprivileged populations, suffering from profound inequality prevalent in the region. This inequality traces back to colonial roots and was exacerbated during the decades of economic liberalization. Today, eight out of the ten most unequal countries in the world are found in Latin America: Haiti, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Panamá, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico. [7] The numbers of poor and extreme poor account for as much of the population in those Latin American countries considered «middle income,» as those in «low income» or «least developed»–but less unequal –countries. Inequality and control of strategic natural resources by national elites and transnational corporations have caused processes of accelerated ecological deterioration. This has led to the subcontinent representing the world’s highest deforestation rates, biodiversity loss and water pollution. Inequality also creates high levels of violence towards, and criminalization of, environmental and human rights defenders. Moreover, it jeopardizes the possibility of trust and cooperation among citizens, and between citizens and governments. [8] In effect, it challenges the possibility of communities and development of commons.

Today, the impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America are exacerbated by decades of neoliberalism and by widespread, chronic inequality. During the current crisis, inequality means unequal capacities to maintain health and protect lives, including: unequal  possibilities to work from home and safely limit social contacts; unequal economic impacts of the quarantine, as those working in the informal economy (the majority of the working population) suffer disproportionately; unequal access to medical attention and access to food; unequal quality of homes where families must now spend an unprecedented amount of time, with many women and children facing domestic violence; and finally, unequal access to the internet and the digital technology required to communicate and participate in educational activities. In addition to all of these conditions, misinformation is also prevalent, with vulnerability leading to the denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, or even of its existence. This diminished social capacity to manage the current crisis demonstrates both the need for a real welfare state, as well as the limitations of government intervention that would address social needs in local conditions.

In our view, the profundity of the crisis makes it necessary to redefine the roles of government, civil society, communities and markets. These roles should be oriented towards the construction of a socially, ecologically and economically viable future, and states should work towards a «new deal,» in order to create more resilient societies. Governments must address structural inequalities and assume their responsibilities as key agents for the redistribution of income and wealth, pursuing progressive fiscal policies with a regulated market subject to the public good. Collective action via social movements is fundamental in achieving such political, economic and social change. Considering the wave of social protest prevailing throughout various Latin American countries in 2019, it seems reasonable to predict that the current crisis will lead to further social unrest if not fully addressed. Whether these movements can inspire profound change, where «communing» and commons can flourish, remains to be seen.

There are several current examples of how COVID-19 affected the people of many Latin American cities, and how they have responded through collective action. For instance, there is the production and provision of food, and healthy food, by (and for) those who have lost employment and sources of income or have fallen ill. These farmer markets, with organic and local food, have proliferated in Mexico City, Bogotá, Santiago de Chile and Rio de Janeiro as a means to maintain peri-urban agriculture and agricultural jobs, as well as access to healthy diets. Since April, street stalls have flourished in various cities, inviting people to donate food, and those who need it to take it. Cooperative initiatives have supported residence homes for the elderly, bringing food and medicine, and caring for the ill. All of these practices of local solidarity can also be understood as a heritage of the recent past, when big disasters like earthquakes have occurred.

Many groups have been formed and organized through different electronic platforms, and via social media, in order to provide relevant and comprehensive information about the pandemic, as well as to report on how it is harming communities and the means and resources for protection. There have been community practices of solidarity with health workers, recognizing and thanking them for their effort and defending them from attack. Families have organized groups aimed at gathering to maintain childrens’ socialization, agreeing to collective rules of protection against COVID-19, despite explicit prohibition by local governments. [9] These «bubbles» often have to overcome the socioeconomic inequality experienced by their participants, struggling to avoid exposition to the virus. Moreover, there have been movements promoting a progressive digital culture, donating computer equipment for underprivileged children, enabling them to attend online schooling. A final example includes how communities have sustained cultural activities and restaurants in the context of social distancing, with people purchasing tickets one year in advance, or attending online theatre productions in support of cultural projects that would otherwise go under.

More than ever, the COVID-19 crisis highlights the need for profound change in Latin American societies. Extreme levels of vulnerability reveal the drastic inequality prevalent in the region, which in the context of the pandemic has transformed into an inequality of means with which to safeguard life and health.

Social participation based on accountability and transparency is critical in order to halt trends of privatization and exclusion from public goods. These trends generate an «anti-commons» destroying cooperation and collective creativity. [10] Governments in the region should undertake measures including: monetary and in-kind transfers; access to basic public services of water; support for small business and cooperatives; safe transportation, education and social protection for formal and informal workers; and finally, access to COVID-19 vaccines when they become available. Implementing these measures would be best facilitated via co-partnership with civil society groups.

A struggle for the future

More than ever, the COVID-19 crisis highlights the need for profound change in Latin American societies. Extreme levels of vulnerability reveal the drastic inequality prevalent in the region, which in the context of the pandemic has transformed into an inequality of means with which to safeguard life and health. In rural and urban communities, there are people suffering from hunger, with families who are not able to pay for the treatments of those infected, even in public hospitals. This crisis is unique in the sense that it has affected many areas of social life, creating new dilemmas for collective action. It has suspended deeper human interaction, as «face to face» contact is limited and dangerous, but also a manner of interaction on which building trust and understanding largely rely. Paradoxically, while extreme restriction of social contact is prescribed, social organization is a critical dimension in cooperating to protect against infection, as individual protection against COVID-19 can only be achieved via protection of the community. Clearly, in this case, one’s wellbeing depends on social wellbeing.

At this point in time, collective action, social movements, «communing» and commons are all the more necessary, in order to remedy the tragedy that many Latin Americans face. We need to remain open to social learning, allowing this crisis to become an opportunity to develop more resilient societies, better able to address the threats of future pandemics and global climate change. Latin America boasts a long tradition of collective action and social struggle in fighting for a better world; these struggles have even led to periods of socially-oriented governments. Nevertheless, these changes have proved insufficient, as economic structures based on concentration of wealth and economic liberalization have prevailed, and civil society has remained largely marginal in critical decision-making processes. Latin America and Latin American cities have demonstrated rich experiences of «communing,» and building cultural, knowledge, infrastructure and care as urban commons. The gravity of the current crisis calls for intensive collective action: social movements, «communing» and urban commons are key to building more inclusive and resilient societies.

[1]  Ostrom, E. (2009). Beyond Markets and State. Nobel Lecture.

[2]  In 2019, in a sample of 610 cities in 95 countries, public spaces (including streets) occupied only 16% of urban spaces, and green areas only 25% of the 16%.

[3]  Putnam, R. (with Leonardi, R. & Nanetti, R.Y). (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

[4]  Merino, L., & Cendejas, J. (2017). Peace building from a commons perspective. International Journal of the Commons, 11 (2), 907–927.

[5]  In the rapid urbanization processes of the region, push factors from rural areas are related to lack of opportunities and services in rural regions are deemed as important if not more so than pull factors like employment and education opportunities.

[6]  Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. (2020). Special Report: Latin America and the Caribbean and the COVID-19, Economic and Social Impacts. United Nations.

[7]  World Bank (2016). Gini Index, World Bank Estimate.

[8]  Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books.

[9]  As the government of the Mexican state of Nuevo León has done.

[10]  Heller, M. A. & Eisenberg, R. (1998). Can Patents Deter Innovation? The Anticommons in Biomedical Research. Science, 280 (5364), 698–701.