Introduction by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
21 June 2021
Over a year ago now, billions of people in the planet had their lives turned upside down virtually at the same time. If at the onset of the pandemic, we could barely comprehend the full extent of the crisis, the strangeness now is to recall a time when masks, variants, and physical distancing were not at the top of everyone’s minds.
The loss and distress have been immense.
As of last week, there had been over 176 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported globally to the World Health Organization, WHO, with over 3.8 million deaths.
The pandemic continues to pose an extraordinary threat to societies worldwide, both as a public health emergency and a socioeconomic crisis with far-reaching consequences.
Given the severity and complexity of the challenge, the Human Rights Council, pursuant to resolution 44/2, has requested my Office to prepare this report that I am honoured to present today.
The report highlights that the central role of the State during pandemics and other health emergencies is to mount a robust health response while upholding human rights.
It also stresses that “the resilience of health systems and national economies has been undermined, to a great extent, by the failure to adequately invest in meeting human rights obligations.”
To honour their commitments made under human rights law and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “States should step up investment in health and social protection systems backed by multilateral, joined-up approaches based on solidarity.” These steps require renewed political will and leadership.
COVID-19 has shown that the “failure to integrate human rights-based approaches into health emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts has serious consequences for human rights and development.”
In addition to the incalculable loss in human lives, the economic cost of the pandemic has been catastrophic. Around 255 million jobs are estimated to have been lost during 2020, nearly four times the figure of the global economic crisis in 2008. Women have been more severely affected than men in all regions and all income groups.
The estimate is that the pandemic may have pushed up to 150 million people into extreme poverty by the beginning of 2021. Global hunger is also on the rise. Over 130 million people became more vulnerable to undernourishment last year.
Informal sector workers, most of whom are women, have been hit particularly hard. In some regions, they could have lost up to 81 per cent of their income in the first month of the crisis.
Groups that have been long marginalized by systemic discrimination and pervasive inequalities have been affected the most. The impact on women and girls, older people, people with disabilities, LGBTI, people deprived of liberty, among other groups, has been particularly severe.
Overall, the pandemic has either disrupted or reversed hard-won progress on achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In terms of health, this crisis has also had a catastrophic effect on other services. There have been serious disruptions to the provision of sexual and reproductive health services and treatments for non-communicable diseases, as well as mental health care and routine vaccination.
States should ensure continued availability and accessibility of care, medicines and vaccines, protecting the primacy of public health over private profit.
And, as I have said before, vaccines against COVID-19 must be considered as a global public good. The universal and equitable access and distribution of vaccines is likely the strongest determinant of whether and how soon we can control the pandemic.
If steps are not taken to protect economic, social and cultural rights and support low-income countries, the outlook remains bleak.
This involves respecting, protecting and fulfilling economic, social and cultural rights, prioritizing universal health coverage and universal social protection.
But after emergency spending to address the impact of the pandemic, instead of focusing on long-term investment to build resilience, many countries are likely to reduce their budgets. It is concerning that a wave of new austerity is likely to affect around 85 per cent of the global population by next year.
Many low-income countries already in debt distress face severe fiscal limitations to respond effectively to the pandemic and its impacts. Consequently, many developing countries are trapped in a dilemma between a debt crisis and a development and human rights crisis.
Although most States are making genuine efforts to minimize the socioeconomic impact of the crisis, critical gaps remain.
Perhaps most egregious is the exclusion of women from COVID-19-related policymaking and decision-making, which has led to policies that generally fail to adequately address the gendered social and economic consequences of the pandemic.
Participation is a right to all. But it is more than that. Both my personal experience and the lessons of history have convinced me that meaningful participation is the only way out of a crisis of this magnitude. And the only path to long-lasting transformative change.
Civil and political rights, such as the rights to participate in public affairs, freedom of expression and freedom of association, must also be uphold. Emergency measures that may result in restrictions on human rights must be time-bound and meet the requirements of non-discrimination, legality, necessity and proportionality.
My report outlines several different measures that States and other stakeholders can take to integrate a human rights-based approach into health emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts.
Stimulus packages, for example, should be developed and assessed through a human rights lens. Proposed fiscal and economic reforms should be gender-transformative, address pre-existing inequalities and avoid creating new ones.
In other words, what we need is a human rights economy – an economy that upholds the dignity and rights of all and promotes sustainable development that leaves no one behind.
States need to step up investment in health and social protection systems for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights by using the maximum of their available resources. That includes through progressive taxation, the efficient and equitable allocation of resources, combating corruption and international cooperation.
Laws and policies that discriminate against women and marginalized populations and groups need to be repealed, rescinded or amended.
And we need to shape policies based on disaggregated data that identifies those who are specifically being excluded or marginalized, helping us determine the root causes of inequality and discrimination.
Other areas that need attention include climate change and the environment, business and human rights, and international and unilateral sanctions.
Last year, the Secretary-General called for a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal to combat inequality and recover better from the pandemic.
To transform this vision into reality, we need people and their rights to be at the centre of recovery efforts and policies. This will be our path to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
More than an assessment of the multiple impacts of the pandemic and the needs generated by it, my report offers concrete recommendations on how to recover better with human rights-based recovery efforts. In that sense, it is also a guide to ensure we are more resilient and better prepared for potential future health emergencies.
My Office and I look forward to continuing our work to support States in this regard.