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GENEVA (22 April 2020) – Many Governments’ responses to COVID-19 have had devastating effects on people in poverty, said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston. “Despite often far-reaching policy reversals and huge financial support packages, the most vulnerable have been short-changed or excluded.”
“The policies of many States reflect a social Darwinism philosophy that prioritises the economic interests of the wealthiest, while doing little for those who are hard at work providing essential services or unable to support themselves,” Alston said.
COVID-19 could push more than half a billion additional people into poverty, he warned. The International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of almost 200 million full-time jobs will disappear in the coming months, while lost income could total US$3.4 trillion this year.
“This is a crisis that disproportionately affects poor people, who are more likely to have health complications, live in crowded housing, lack the resources to stay at home for long periods, and work low-paid jobs that force them to choose between risking their health or losing their income,” Alston said. “In a moral failing of epic proportions, most States are doing all too little to protect those most vulnerable to this pandemic.”
“Governments have shut down entire countries without making even minimal efforts to ensure people can get by,” Alston said. “Many in poverty live day to day, with no savings or surplus food. And of course, homeless people cannot simply stay home.”
In China, which he visited in 2016 and then presented
a report to the Human Rights Council, the quarantine of 60 million people effectively halted social services, leaving those in poverty to fend for themselves.
“After pushing millions inside without a plan, some governments have responded with gratuitous and counter-productive violence to low-income people forced to leave their homes to survive,” the Special Rapporteur said.
“While some States have taken important initiatives such as direct cash payments, suspension of evictions and coverage of furloughed employees’ salaries, for the most part support measures have been utterly inadequate and the most vulnerable populations have been neglected. This is cruel, inhumane and self-defeating, since it forces them to continue working in unsafe conditions, putting everyone’s health at risk.”
In the United States, which Alston assessed in a
2018 report to the Human Rights Council, the Government relief package temporarily expanded unemployment programmes but excluded taxpaying undocumented and informal workers.
Despite the availability of alternative options, many States continue to detain vulnerable people in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers in crowded conditions and without adequate healthcare. For some, this will be a death sentence.
COVID-19 has also exposed dramatic inequalities among countries. “While some States see the curve flattening, the coronavirus is poised to wreak havoc in poorer countries. Wealthy States should direct support to governments that need it, suspend or cancel foreign debt, and stop monopolising medical equipment and coronavirus tests,” Alston said. “The assault on the World Health Organization, at a time when multilateral cooperation is crucial, is as unjustified as it is unconscionable, and is totally self-defeating”, he added.
“This pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy of social support systems in many countries.” Alston said. “While some governments have embraced far-ranging measures previously dismissed as unrealistic, most programs have been short-term, stop-gap measures that merely buy time rather than address the immense challenges that will continue well into the future. Now is the time for deep structural reforms that will protect populations as a whole and will build resilience in the face of an uncertain future,” he added.
Philip Alston (Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014. As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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