By Marcelo Rodriguez and Michele A. L. Villagran
In mid-March 2020, when all of New York City was preparing to go into a lockdown and the cases of people infected and dying of COVID-19 were doubling every day, Marcelo decided to create a group of law librarians monitoring the legal response to the same crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This project was born out of a place of frustration and hope. The news media were focusing almost exclusively in the rapidly deteriorating situation in most of Western Europe as well as here in the United States. Very little information was shared or featured on the situation in neighboring countries. There was a sense that COVID-19 had arrived “late” in Latin America compared to Western Europe and the United States.
Therefore, we were meant to believe that the seeming lack of information was merely because of the lack of cases or preparation in the region. However, Marcelo knew firsthand that the situation was far from quiet. Through family, friends and colleagues living in different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Marcelo had formed a completely new picture of the situation, understanding how much our well-being here in the United States depended on their well-being in Latin American and the Caribbean and vice versa.
When you are a librarian, you learn quickly that access to information is the key to everything. When you are a law librarian, access to legal and government information is transformed into access to justice through an informed citizenry. Considering the dramatic and rapidly evolving situation, we had to do something concrete and productive, reflecting the values of being a law librarian. In the spirit of community and identity, Marcelo began to reach out to other law librarians whom he had met previously through the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). After a few days, we had a fantastic group of seven law librarians monitoring every single part of the region. Immediately, we began monitoring the legal response in each of our countries and territories, collecting important data and creating a series of Biweekly Reports.
As law librarians, we strongly believe that we have the expertise and the network to strive for a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of a particular issue. We sincerely wish that this is just a first stepping stone into reaching out to each other in the context of a tragic situation, and to lift us up to the promise of a better future for our entire continent. Let’s take a look at some interesting updates on a handful of the countries the authors are tracking and their personal interests with these countries.
Argentina, Uruguay and Chile
Michele enlisted in this project because she was interested in learning more about how other countries, specifically in South America, are dealing with this global epidemic. Her hope is that the research with this project will lead to future collaborations with the Latin American and Caribbean regions. In April 2009 as part of her doctoral experience at Pepperdine University, Michele had to choose between an international trip to Argentina or China. She selected Argentina. Michele fell in love with the country—the people, the weather, its food, its plazas, its wine, the flamenco, the language, its futbol, the history. Even back then, when Michele was a practicing law librarian, she loved the law and always took photos of law schools and interesting buildings!
As a result of this trip, Michele has included Argentina on the top five places to live and it still remains on her list! Monitoring the legal response to COVID-19 in Argentina would offer her the connection she had years before, but in a different realm. While Michele did not get to visit Uruguay or Chile at that time, she thought it would be interesting to consider how these two countries compared to Argentina.
Argentina remains the country with the most activity around the COVID-19 situation. It began its mandatory quarantine on March 19, but in the month that has followed there have been concerns across some of the most vulnerable and largest populations. For example, March 28 criminals were asking for jail release given the risk of the virus. With more than 35% of the population in Argentina considered poverty-stricken, the concerns were high and the low-income neighborhoods were organizing against the virus. On April 6, the Argentine government postponed local debt payments due in dollars until the end of the year. Argentina has had an unstable debt situation for some time and the pandemic has not helped. Even before the virus arrived, there were already projections for the third year of recession for the second-largest nation in South America.
While Chile seems to have the most comprehensive action plan for COVID-19 that includes official figures, quarantines, self-care, protocols, news and frequent questions, President Sebastián Piñera was under a lot of pressure in the beginning to announce the national quarantine and follow its neighbor, Argentina. Some protocols worth highlighting were passed in early April. On April 8, 2020, the Chilean Senate adopted a protocol for carrying out committee sessions remotely during the 90-day state of health emergency declared on March 18, 2020, by President Sebastián Piñera. The protocol provides that during the emergency senators may participate and vote in committee sessions either in person or through remote means. In May, the government enacted a law creating emergency family income to aid households. The requirements to request the emergency family income and who is eligible can visit http://www.ingresodeemergencia.cl/. The Minister of health, Jaime Mañalich, announced the “COVID Cards” which would be offered to individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 as indicated by antibody testing, releasing them from quarantine and other restrictions. This is the world’s first immunity cards, and their issuance has been fraught with debate. According to Bloomberg, Chile has the highest testing rate per capita in South America at more than 95,000.
As for Uruguay, being such a small country, it is used to relying on itself in comparison to to Argentina and Chile. It also have had far less impact financially as the other countries. The government measures include tax (direct and indirect), employment, and economic stimulus measures. On April 15, the Uruguayan parliament passed Law 19869, providing a legal framework for telemedicine. The new law offers opportunities for the e-health industry and prioritizes alternative means of access to medical consults and hospitals.
Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay
Marcelo chose to monitor Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay as a personal and professional challenge. Rich in natural resources and cultural diversity, these three countries offer representative features and at the same time special characteristics that set them apart from the entire region. Specific situations in all three countries have been exacerbated during the current crisis as well as broader issues touching not only these three countries, but the entire region. Since day one, monitoring the legal response to the COVID-19 in these countries has been a balancing act between highlighting a specific issue, while trying to keep abreast of the bigger picture and similar response elsewhere in the region.
For example, on April 2, Peru, together with Panama, began restricting movement by gender. Women and men were allowed to leave their houses exclusively on the three days assigned to their gender. No one was allowed to leave their houses on Sundays. This gender-based restrictive policy proved to be controversial with the transgender community in Peru as well as creating a significant amount of confusion and chaos. On April 10, Peru cancelled the controversial policy. However, as far as we know, Panama has continued its implementation, and since the end of April, Colombia’s capital city, Bogota has decided to implement a similar policy. These failed and discriminatory policies are unfortunately part of a pattern of transphobia which COVID-19 has exacerbated or has brought to everyone’s attention: lack of access to health care, harassment by the public as well as police forces, and fear to report any abuses.
On March 21, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal suspended the presidential elections scheduled for May 3,and also declared a 14-days suspension of electoral campaigns. Given the political crisis at the end of last year when the then-President Evo Morales left the country sparking national protests, the current interim government of Jeanine Añez’s legitimacy has been questioned in some circles. Despite these concerns, the May 3 elections were universally seen as the democratic way forward for a country marred in a precarious political situation. Taking advantage of its control over parliament, the opposition approved a motion whereby elections need to take place by August 2. Suspension of elections is one example of the need to ensure transparency, accountability and citizen participation at all steps of the political process now more than ever.
Compared to the other two countries, Paraguay seems to have escaped the worst of the pandemic without the need to implement the same stringent policies. President Mario Abdo Benitez has been both lauded for its government’s actions as well as criticized for the lack or slow testing in the country. Landlocked Paraguay is also an example of the imperious need for a regional and international response to a pandemic which completely disregards political boundaries. Despite its low rate of people infected or dead, Paraguay faces insurmountable pressure and challenges as Brazil becomes the new hotspot in the region. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has recklessly downplayed the situation in its country, and he has consequently endangered any progress its neighboring countries might be able to achieve. Porous borders, presence of isolated indigenous communities across borders, refugees coming from Venezuela and much-needed supply chains among countries are all part of an explosive situation which demands a coordinated and collaborative regional and international approach.
This project is only in its beginning stages. Now two months into the monitoring, the team of seven law librarian professionals continue to monitor their respective countries:
- Mary Abby Dos Santos: Brazil
- Yasmin Morais: CARICOM
- Eduardo Colon-Semidey: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba
- Ulysses Jaen: Mexico, Central America
- Michele A. L. Villagran: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay
- Victoria De La Torre: Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela
- Marcelo Rodriguez: Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, regional overview
Our team consists of law librarians from all segments: government, law firms, universities and LIS education. The diversity in professional backgrounds is one of our strongest features and we each reach out to our networks to share our particular reports to generate interest in our project.
We have developed a dedicated website, “Monitoring the Legal Response to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean” where we include our summary reports, top five most-trusted sources and our publications. You can also learn a bit about each of the project participants above. The monitoring of legal responses from regulatory to legislative to other country specific legal concerns will continue through July 2020. Upon completion of monitoring, our team has a host of ideas for next steps including collaborations, publishing and presenting.
Our team welcomes potential collaborations among other groups, agencies and interested groups or individuals. This project has many limbs that can be infused with other possibilities. We are currently closely working with both the African Law Interest Group and the Asian Law Interest Group of AALL to create similar projects in these jurisdictions. We really believe the sky is the limit with this type of project and that each jurisdiction deserves representation if possible.
Another intention of this project is to share our findings with the larger community; law librarians, academics, corporations, and organizations that may be interested. We are hoping to publish our efforts to several different outlets as this project is unique in and of itself and the findings are particularly unique given the majority of the coverage of COVID-19 has been more U.S.-centric or local. The opportunities here include publishing our research in scholarly articles in legal journals, library and information science publications, and book opportunities. We are considering opportunities to publish in multiple languages as well.
Along with our publication desires are presenting opportunities such as presenting at webinars and conferences. We are in communications with the Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section of AALL about a possible webinar this coming summer. Additionally, we’d like to speak at local and international conferences about this project and the importance to the communities in which we are following.
Marcelo Rodriguez is Research and Training Librarian, U.S. Courts for the Second Circuit Marcelo_Rodriguez@ca2.uscourts.gov
Michele A. L. Villagran is an Assistant Professor at San José State University School of Information.