A post-pandemic era: Human Rights challenges for a ‘new normal’

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A post-pandemic era: Human Rights challenges for a ‘new normal’

A global pandemic such as the one we are experiencing is one of those disruptive events that can generate momentum to revisit some of our basic assumptions and to delineate creative ways to shape the future(s).

The priority right now is to save lives and to find a vaccine to universally fight the coronavirus. But when planning measures to overcome the health crisis and its subsequent economic and social consequences, we should take into consideration other global challenges that were on the table long before the current pandemic. I am referring particularly to increasing inequalities and to climatic emergence, two issues that have a significant impact on the basic human rights of millions of people.

Inequality is one of the main legacies of the 2008 global financial crisis that is still having dramatic consequences nowadays. According to historian Tony Judt, the social contract that defined post-war Europe and America after 1945 (the so-called Spirit of 1945) is no longer in place; it has been significantly eroded by globalisation and by the conservative revolution that emerged in the 1980s. This social contract was based on an adequate balance between intervention by the state and the operation of the rules of the market. The welfare state was the political articulation of this social-democrat division of powers between the state and the market, and it served to guarantee peace, democratic stability, economic progress, social justice and human rights for all social groups until the late twentieth century. Neoliberal globalisation has challenged this status quo, and the global financial crisis has deepened its problems of legitimacy and survival. The austerity measures imposed in many countries as a recipe to fight the financial crisis have aggravated the situation, and have created significant inequalities between both individuals and social groups, thus deteriorating the realisation of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.

This regression in the levels of progress and human rights that citizens in developed countries used to have until very recently is creating a social and political gap between elites and the rest of society, thus leading to a progressive social divorce that is deteriorating the social fabric that was successfully built after the Second World War. The realisation of all human rights cannot be interpreted exclusively as an economic cost, but must also be seen as a social investment that can positively impact on economic growth, equality and social and political inclusion. Inequalities are having highly adverse economic, social and political impacts on our societies; they inhibit economic growth, and can generate the conditions that open the door to frustration, violence and new forms of populism.

The increasing sense of injustice, frustration, disenchantment and discontent in relevant segments of society is having a strong political impact. This is leading to growing tensions between democratic governance and capitalism, and some voices are starting to question if, and to what extent, liberal democracy can survive in the face of the current process of globalisation. We are witnessing a global trend that goes from cosmopolitan liberalism to nationalist populism, neo-fascism and far-right political parties that openly challenge the longstanding foundations of international human rights and representative democracy. New forms of populism not only question human rights and raise voices of intolerance, but also criticise diversity and multiculturalism, gender equality, the activities developed by some human rights non-governmental organisations, or deny the urgent need to fight environmental degradation and climate change. Many supporters of the populist rhetoric and practice are those left behind by the process of globalisation who feel that migrants are responsible for their situation and that local and global elites are piloting a process that is increasing their exclusion and vulnerability. In this context of economic and social precariousness, the use of migrants as scapegoats is naturalising in many countries, and xenophobia and hate speech are circulating dangerously in political and social debates.

The current pandemic is exacerbating the vulnerability of those social groups that were already in a marginalised situation. As dramatically illustrated by Roberto Zariquiey in relation to the impact of coronavirus in Latin America, ‘the map of Covid-19 is the map of exclusion and poverty’. Indeed, the coronavirus is affecting disproportionally groups such as the elderly in Europe, indigenous peoples in the Americas, Afro-Americans and Latinos in the United States, migrants and internally displaced people worldwide, etc.

In this challenging scenario, the realisation of all human rights has to be seen as a social investment that can positively impact on economic growth, equality and social and political inclusion. There is a need for a new social contract in which contemporary societies find the adequate balance between the market and the state that has been reversed by the current process of globalisation. This is one of the main lessons that we can learn from the battle against COVID-19: those countries with public, inclusive and resourced health systems, with solid and robust institutions, with free and responsible media, and with active and informed civil societies are in a much better position to adequately fight emergencies of this nature. The role of the state will continue to be essential in a post COVID-19 world. The market can contribute, of course, but the key responsibility to guarantee human rights for all lies with the state.

The second challenge that post COVID-19 politics will have to address is climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement established ambitious goals to try to limit the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the current pandemic is changing priorities, and it seems that the discussion about environmental issues is no longer urgent. One positive side-effect, if any, of the coronavirus crisis is that, due both to forced confinement and to the paralysis of the economic and transport systems, our levels of consumption have abruptly dropped. Accordingly, carbon emissions are also being significantly reduced. As some scientists associated with the Global Carbon Project have estimated, the impact on 2020 annual emissions will depend on the duration of the confinement, with a low estimate of -4% if pre COVID-19 conditions return by mid-June, and a high estimate of -7% if some restrictions are kept worldwide until the end of 2020. This means that it is possible to reduce our levels of consumption and to modify its patterns. The so-called ‘new normality’ cannot mean to go back to the pre COVID-19 situation, where the increase of our carbon emissions was leading to global warming and ecological catastrophe. We need a profound reflection about our ways of life and our patterns of consumption, since they are simply no longer sustainable. The world needs structural changes in economic, transport and energy systems. A new green deal is necessary; a new contract between the relevant stakeholders, including future generations. It cannot wait. The way in which world leaders design measures to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic will influence the type of humanity of the future.

In sum, COVID-19 has to be seen as an opportunity to revisit the challenges ahead and to find adequate and durable solutions based in a universal culture of human rights and in harmonious relations with nature. These should be the main ingredients of the new normal. In June 2020 the Spanish government adopted a minimum vital income scheme for those most in need due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis. These are the kind of measures that go in the right direction.

Felipe Gómez Isa

Written by Felipe Gómez Isa

Felipe Gómez Isa is Professor of Public International Law and researcher at the Pedro Arrupe Institute of Human Rights of the University of Deusto (Bilbao, Spain). He is Vice-Dean for International Relations at Deusto Law School. He has published extensively on issues related to international human rights law, transitional justice, women’s rights and indigenous peoples’ rights. He is Vice-President of the Global Campus of Human Rights.

Cite as: Gómez Isa, Felipe. "A post-pandemic era: Human Rights challenges for a ‘new normal’", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 20 July 2020, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/a-post-pandemic-era-human-rights-challenges-for-a-new-normal.html


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