It is becoming increasingly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is both a consequence and cause of deepening social inequalities. An effective human rights-based response requires us to firmly prioritise the realisation of economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights and to envisage global solidarity mechanisms that will render this possible.
In the early phases of the pandemic, when assessing human rights implications of measures taken in response to COVID-19, a predominant tendency was to focus on threats to constitutionally guaranteed liberties and rights. Did authorities go too far in imposing restrictions on freedom of movement, the right to assembly or privacy rights – to mention a few obvious examples? And more disturbingly, had authoritarian regimes used the global health scare as a cover for expanding social control, usurping power or in other ways subverting democracy?
Now, as lockdown measures have persisted for months and as governments all around the world are re-opening society (whether or not justified by public health developments), another set of concerns is becoming increasingly visible: the effects of the pandemic and the burdens carried by different social groups in shouldering its consequences have been highly uneven.
In Europe and other affluent regions of the world, a combination of public policy measures, bailouts and flexible working arrangements have quite effectively shielded large parts of the population both from virus exposure and from the material consequences of the pandemic. This applies especially to the more privileged segments of society. Most have come through the lockdown unscathed; some have even benefitted. Thus, following a severe but short downturn, capital markets quickly rebounded and those with significant investments are as well off as before, if not better. As in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, this is largely a result of interventions by central banks to flood the markets with liquid capital.
Other segments of society, meanwhile, have experienced job losses on a massive scale and face immediate threats to their livelihoods. We saw signs of this in southern Italy in late March 2020, when news media began reporting on looting of supermarkets due to people’s sudden loss of income. The prevalence of an ‘informal economy’ only added to the problem, as the lockdown left people depending on it without access to social security, thus fuelling an already existing distrust of government. Other working people have been obliged to stay on the frontline to keep essential functions and services operational, for example in the health sector and care for the elderly, public transport, retail or the food processing industry. They preserved their (typically modest) income but at the price of continued exposure to risks of virus infection. This, at least partially, accounts for disproportionately high infection rates in minority populations and socially disadvantaged groups in many developed countries.
The general picture emerging from the pandemic is that COVID-19 reinforces existing inequalities and social tensions. This is all the more apparent when one adopts a global perspective. Epicentres of the pandemic are now increasingly shifting to countries in the Global South, where public finances are being depleted by inflationary pressures and declining commodity prices and where it is simply impossible for many communities to maintain social distancing or observe lockdown regulations, as they have no possibility to provide for themselves without venturing into an overcrowded public sphere or into poorly protected workplaces. The dire situation in the favelas of Brazil or in African mining communities starkly illustrates this predicament. The COVID-19 epoch has also been a time of social uprising. In the United States and Lebanon, this has been triggered by factors that are not immediately virus-related (protests rather target systemic racism and government corruption), but spontaneous expressions of raw anger and demands for change are in both places likely to have been intensified by the sense of division and insecurity deriving from the pandemic.
What does all of this have to do with human rights? A lot. The imbalanced impact of the pandemic underscores both the importance and the precariousness of protections for economic, social and cultural rights. In a situation in which ‘for the first time since 1990’ global poverty is rising, there is an urgent need to facilitate universal access to clean water, food, shelter, health services and other essential provisions covered by the ESC rights framework. And yet the structures that are or should be in place to ensure such provisions are being undermined by the very situation that renders them necessary.
In the area of health, for example, access to treatment is being limited by a depletion of government funds, or it depends on private insurance which often is linked with employment and therefore unavailable to people facing layoffs. The burden placed by the pandemic on fragile health systems diverts resources and attention from other urgent health concerns (for example TB or immunisation against childhood diseases), which in turn may lead to serious public health setbacks. And to further exacerbate all of this, the issue of support to the WHO is being politicised for virus-related reasons thus leading to an absurd threat of funding cuts precisely at a time when the organisation is most needed.
Similar predicaments could be detailed in relation to other ESC rights. We don’t yet know the full impact of the pandemic in this regard. What we do know is that societies and communities with an extensive and well-functioning protection of ESC rights seem to be weathering the pandemic storm much better than societies without. While scarred by human and economic losses, they are dealing with the crisis reassured by an experience of social solidarity, civic responsibility and a renewed sense of communal togetherness. By contrast, societies where basic economic and social protections are lacking, and where underprivileged population groups have been left to fend for themselves, are facing instability, tension and imminent unrest.
Zdzisław Kedzia’s contribution to this forum highlights the importance of protecting ESC rights as a parameter of societal resilience. Based on findings and recommendations of the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, it details government obligations of immediate relevance to the pandemic crisis. This constitutes an indispensable reference point for interventions at national level. In extension of this, the profound disparities accentuated and made visible by COVID-19 also call for bold and innovative international measures, which in some manner or another must include an element of wealth redistribution.
The €750bn EU virus recovery fund, which is still under negotiation at the time of this writing, potentially marks a step in this direction in the European context. If properly construed and managed, it may facilitate a stimulation of the economy which (in addition to prioritising environment friendly investments) extends social protections and job opportunities to the regions and social segments that are most adversely affected by the pandemic. The spectre of mass youth unemployment in Europe as invoked by the OECD —perhaps even a COVID-19 ‘lost generation’ — underscores the urgency of such an approach.
UNDP, similarly, has reacted to the vicious circle of the pandemic exacerbating global poverty which in turn increases exposure to the virus, and hence deepens and prolongs the pandemic, with a radical proposal for temporary basic income for up to 3 billion members of the human family worldwide. Consistent with the ethos of ESC rights, the aim is to stabilise social relations and foster human agency by ensuring basic subsistence provisions for all.
Coming at the same problem from the opposite angle, some of the world’s richest and most privileged also recognise the need for wealth redistribution and social responsibility beyond philanthropy. The Human Act ‘move humanity’ initiative, supported by a group of ‘millionaires for humanity’, thus advocates for the establishment of a 1% global wealth tax, which, it notes, could go a long way towards facilitating realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Like the ‘Tobin tax’ on currency transactions envisaged decades ago, this is intended as a commitment to social justice which at the same time safeguards acquired wealth by rendering the underlying societal context sustainable.
Proposals of this nature are not easily operationalised. Effective global taxation measures, like basic income provisions, are fraught with practical complications. The essential point however is that the current crisis confronts us with a need for bold, visionary, even utopian thinking.
Perhaps the most remarkable lesson of the pandemic is the swiftness and thoroughness with which governments in different regions of the world have proved capable of reacting, and the degree of acceptance with which even radical restrictions and personal sacrifices have been met by mainstream populations. Environment advocates have been quick to argue that a similar determination needs to be mobilised in reaction to the pending climate crisis, which over time will inflict much more damage and human suffering than the threat posed by COVID-19 to public health. Rightly so. The corresponding human rights-based reaction must be to seize the pandemic as an opportunity for genuine global solidarity. Governments worldwide need to both prioritise and be enabled to safeguard human dignity by respecting ESC rights. This may be a utopian vision, but at whatever level it is realised, it leads to empowered individuals, families and communities emerging as responsible partners in rising to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Written by George Ulrich
Professor George Ulrich is Academic Director of the Global Campus of Human Rights.
Cite as: Ulrich, George. "COVID-19, ESC Rights and Societal Resilience", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 31 August 2020, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/covid-19-esc-rights-and-societal-resilience.html
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