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Addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic communities

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

24 November 2020

Thanks to the organisers for this initiative. I am convinced that we must make this period a turning point for minority communities in societies across the world.

It has been shocking to see the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on individuals and groups who are marginalized and suffer discrimination based on descent – in particular, people from ethnic or religious minorities, as well as indigenous peoples.

Shocking – but not surprising.

People who have been pushed behind, and rendered powerless, by generations of discrimination, have systematically unequal access to services and opportunities – including in education, shelter, sanitation, access to employment and justice and participation in decisions that affect them. They are placed at a structural disadvantage when it comes to any threat.

Discrimination also robs many people of equal access to quality health care.

As a doctor, and a former Minister for Health, I heard many times from patients who told me that the medical institutions in their areas are far away, overcrowded and poorly equipped. They also mentioned how they were not listened to, and even humiliated, when they sought medical care, because of stereotypes about indigenous peoples and members of minority groups.

When COVID-19 hit, members of discriminated groups were overexposed to contagion because of their low-paid and precarious work in specific industries – including health-care.

They were underprotected, because of limited access to health-care and social protections, such as sick leave and unemployment or furlough pay.

They were structurally less able to isolate themselves if they had been infected – due to inadequate living conditions and limited access to sanitation – meaning the virus could spread much more easily within their communities.

And the pandemic kept making all these factors worse.

Over the past 11 months, the poor have gotten poorer, and those suffering discrimination have endured worse discrimination.

People with less access to decent work and social protection are more easily dismissed from their jobs. To keep a roof over the heads, and food on the table, many have been forced to do dangerous and even more precarious work, often in the "black" economy, without employment protections. Children in homes with poor Internet access and computer equipment have fallen behind in school – and many have been forced to work to help keep their families afloat. With regard to basic economic security, employment, education, housing and food, the pandemic has had massive negative impact.

Furthermore, as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination pointed out in August, the pandemic has seen " a significant increase in stigmatization, labelling and scapegoating – which often results in discriminatory acts, and even violence... in particular against people of Asian and African descent; migrants; members of the Roma community; and those who are regarded as belonging to lower castes."

To invoke a visual image, it's as if there are circles of inequalities, powerlessness, and multiple forms of deprivation. All of them are growing wider and deeper, due to COVID-19. And at the point where all these circles of suffering and deprivation overlap – at the centre and source of this diagram – is a human rights black hole, created by discrimination.

We have got to learn the lessons of COVID-19.

I believe in the possibility of change, because I have seen it – transformative social change that brings reconciliation and a better future to an entire nation. But to effect change, we must learn the lessons of disaster. And COVID-19 very clearly demonstrates that inequalities and discrimination don't only harm the individuals who are directly, and unfairly, impacted.

They also create shock-waves that harm everyone, across society.

To address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on minority groups, we must undo the generations of discrimination and neglect that have shaped its spread.

We need policies that uphold our equality, and which deliver universal and equal access to social welfare protections and health care, without any form of discrimination.

We need to upgrade the quality health care that has been undermined, in many countries, by austerity budgets and failures to invest in well-trained health personnel. We need immediate and longer-term work to advance the right to social protection. Even in times of crisis, States have a duty to allocate resources to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of marginalised people.

And we need data on testing, cases and deaths related to COVID-19 disaggregated by sex, age, racial or ethnic origin and other status, so that policies can specifically target those most in need.

Recent advances in vaccine development are an inspiring demonstration of human ingenuity, and our ability to resolve very complex challenges. We need to make those vaccines accessible, affordable and distribute them equitably.

We need institutions which promote respect for the views and rights of all members of society – and in particular, full and meaningful participation by and consultation with the communities that have been pushed so far behind.

We need timely, evidence-based, credible health information and education for everyone, to promote informed decision-making by the people concerned.

We need laws that require the police and justice systems to serve and protect the people in transparency, and without discrimination.

Finally – and crucially – it will be vital to create an enabling environment for civil society organizations to operate freely and support communities most in need.

To achieve this agenda will be the work of a generation. It will take wide coalitions and global efforts. But the scale of the task does not make it insurmountable: it means we should begin this work today. Because these principles, in action, are the foundation of resilience. They protect vulnerable people – and all of us – from the worst impacts of every kind of crisis.

COVID-19's immediate health impacts, coupled with its longer-term social and economic consequences, have already taken more than a million lives, destroyed countless livelihoods, curtailed young people's education, increased violence against women and driven increased poverty and hunger in every society.

This explosive contagion is being accelerated and deepened by discrimination. It is time – well past time – to eradicate its generational, multi-dimensional and comprehensive harms.

Thank you