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“The role of science and technology in the post-COVID future”

Video message by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,Michelle Bachelet,
at the Science and Technology in Society forum session “Shaping a post-COVID society”

5 October 2020

I am pleased to join you in this important discussion.

As individuals and societies, COVID-19 has highlighted our profound dependence on science and technology.

For billions of people, digital technologies has meant studying and working from home; running businesses remotely; accessing essential information through online news outlets, government services and social media; staying in touch with family, loved ones and the entire outside world during lockdowns.

These technologies are also essential for tackling the virus itself. Digital contact tracing is being used in many countries; tele-medicine increased the reach of healthcare; and artificial intelligence may be a strong asset in development of treatments and vaccines.

Yet, the benefits of these technologies are far from universal. One of the many inequalities exposed by the pandemic is the digital divide.

Almost half of the world’s population is still off the internet. In least developed countries, less than 20% can connect. In the wealthiest nations, millions of people have no high-speed access, particularly in communities which already face marginalization and discrimination. And overall, women are more affected by the digital gap.

To build back better from the pandemic, we must overcome this challenge as quickly as possible. We must be attentive to the issue of internet shutdowns and how they deeply affect human rights and development. In a health crisis, it can cost people’s lives.

Everyone must have access to information, medicines and tools to prevent, detect and treat COVID-19, including a vaccine. The benefits of scientific progress, especially as they apply to life-saving innovations, are meant to be shared. At no time has this goal been more urgent.

We must join forces and accelerate technology transfer. As we must join efforts to address the challenges these new technologies bring.

Alongside remarkable opportunities, they may have enormous implications on many human rights and freedoms, from the right to privacy to non-discrimination, to health and to life, from the freedom of association, to expression and movement.

In fact, if not developed and governed with human rights at the centre, digital and data-driven tools may further entrench discrimination and exclusion and pave the way towards surveillance societies.

In addition, new technologies have a transformational impact in the world of work. New jobs are being created, others being eliminated and the people least able to cope with these changes are often those who already face discrimination, such as that based on race and gender.

When navigating these transitions, or during economic downturns or crisis, it is essential to ensure that economic and social rights are protected, including the right to decent work and social protection.

Many existing inequalities exposed by the pandemic have in fact been exacerbated by extensive gaps in social protection. Over 70% of the global population is either not covered, or only partially covered.

Today, we have the extraordinary opportunity – and moral duty -- to build back better. That means societies with comprehensive social protection systems, without discrimination of any kind, which are able to stand both future shocks and changes brought by new technologies. At the same time, new technologies, if developed and applied based on human rights principles, could be key in transforming social protection systems in easily accessible and effective tools to serve the needs of the most marginalized.

As we saw, underlying human rights gaps and failings have generated greater vulnerabilities for entire societies and regions. That is why human rights must be at the centre of how we respond to the pandemic and build a better future.

A human rights lens gives us a holistic view of the pandemic -- and of the measures and tools used to address it.

And the human rights framework sets limits. It ensures that authorities may not act arbitrarily but rather in a predictable, fair and effective way.

For that purpose, human rights due diligence is essential, from both public and private sectors.

However, many parts of the world lack the necessary legal and institutional frameworks, as well as data protection and governance regimes, with enforcement mechanisms.

This is another digital gap that we must bridge.

Once again, international cooperation is crucial.

The Secretary-General’s RoadMap on Digital Cooperation provides us with a collective guide to ensure digital technologies better serve humanity.

This will be essential if we are to truly build back better from this crisis, with societies that are more equal, just and inclusive. Free societies that can embrace and benefit from digital technologies, while mitigating their risks.

Thank you.