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The COVID-19 Pandemic And Economic,
Social And Cultural Rights

45 Authors Share Their Reflections

The current crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to control it is likely to have long-lasting, and potentially deep and structural effects on societies. From the impacts on health, life, access to food, livelihoods and housing, to the undermining of civil liberties and privacy, the impairment of human rights across the spectrum, and particularly for disadvantaged groups, is deeply concerning.

As a rapid response to COVID-19 pandemic, GI-ESCR launched a blog series in March 2020 to encourage  debates on how to address the crisis from a human rights respective. 45 authors, advocates, practitioners, policy makers and academics, contributed to a total of 32 thought-provoking articles between April and October 2020, opening a space to reflect on and assess the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of ESC rights.
The various contributions highlight the importance of putting economic, social and cultural rights, climate change and gender equality at the centre of policy responses to the pandemic. As curators of the blog, we ensured maximum visibility for unrepresented voices. Thus, out of 45 authors, 71% were from the Global South and 75% were women.

Some articles


As a custodian of these valuable contributions aimed at advancing the debate on such crucial issues, GI-ESCR has compiled them into a publication, classifying them thematically.

The full publication, which is part of GI-ESCR’s series “Pushing the frontiers of ESC rights” will soon be available here.

Click on the thematic area of your choice here below to display the content.

Inequality and protecting marginalised groups
A strong, consistent theme of the blogs is inequality. As many of the authors note, COVID-19 has both “illuminate(d) the fragmentation and social inequalities within and between our societies” and shown the importance of an equal society.

Those in poverty are more likely to be working under insecure contracts, have dangerous or unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and experience inadequate housing conditions and a lack of water and sanitation, all of which makes it very difficult for them to protect themselves against the virus and to isolate properly. For example, in relation to the right to education, school closures, distance learning and unequal access to computers and the internet are also exacerbating inequality through generations and vulnerability to other inevitable crises.

To illustrate how COVID-19 is affecting those in poverty, many articles draw attention to particular-country situations. Anita Nyanjong, for instance, outlines how in Kenya many of those living in slums and informal settlements are at risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes, which without any possibility of alternative accommodation, will increase their risk of contracting the virus. Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri and Emem Okon discuss the situation in Nigeria, and how those living in poverty in resource extraction areas, such as the Niger delta, have already had their health undermined by decades of pollution, and are thus especially likely to suffer severe complications from the virus. Regarding the UK, Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Sara Bailey refer to official statistics showing “that the residents of the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice as much as residents of the richest”, and have attributed this to decades of austerity reducing access to adequate housing and social protection that has exacerbated health problems and impaired peoples’ ability to work from home.

Many of the blogs also elaborate on the situation of particular population groups who, because of systemic discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, race, migration status, sex, gender, disability, minority or indigenous status, are more likely to live in extreme poverty and be disproportionately affected by the virus. As Joshua Castellino explains, the situation of minorities is also exacerbated by the “politics of hate”, and increasing stigmatisation, which has prevented many from accessing decent work, housing and healthcare.  Such politics has been driven by inequality and increasing poverty that results in people being “easily goaded into hate by powerful interests”. He thus recognises COVID-19 as an opportunity to end “the hate game”, to recognise and remedy the situation of those minorities and protect them against stigmatisation and discrimination. Castellino regards this as “the only route to success”, noting the possibility of “systemic economic and social breakdown” if such communities continue to be “scapegoated”.

Several blogs highlight the situation of temporary and undocumented migrants who are already likely experiencing high levels of poverty, limited employment options, overcrowded accommodation and restricted access to health care and social protection (due to their legal status), making them both at an increased risk of contracting the virus and of being affected by the global economic contraction. Alejandra Ancheita draws attention to temporary labour migration programmes that recruit migrants to work across borders with often very little pay and few labour protections.  In the UK, Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Sara Bailey note that some migrants are ineligible for government help and are at a further risk of poverty and exposure to COVID-19 through inadequate housing and unsafe working practices. Moreover, as observed by Stefano Angeleri, even when government support is offered to migrants - such as in Ireland, where the government has allowed irregular migrants to be tested for COVID-19 and receive treatment, and made the “Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment” and other one-off payments (regardless of migration status) available - such measures are temporary and often fall short of human rights legal requirements.

With regards to indigenous persons and peoples, Sharifah Sekalala and Belinda Rawson outline their specific vulnerability to COVID-19 infection due to the historical denial of their rights that has resulted in poor housing, and insufficient access to health care and essential services. However, governments are yet to take specific responses that address the structural impediments to the enjoyment of their rights. The authors thus call on governments to ensure that their human rights obligations are at the core of the response to the crisis and address entrenched inequalities and resulting disparities - including through preserving traditions, addressing institutionalised discriminatory practices, and improving conditions which underlie the social determinants of health.

Many authors also draw attention to how women have been impacted by the pandemic, including having their already disproportionate care burden increased due to school closures and overstretched health systems (Kavita Naidu and Misun Woo). Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri and Emem Okon also outline how in Nigeria traditional roles for women such as fetching water and firewood, going to markets and caring for the sick have prevented them from adhering to recommended safety protocols to stay at home. Alejandra Ancheita specifically highlights how lockdowns and enforced social isolation have exacerbated violence against women in many regions of the world, including in Europe and Latin America.    

By exposing the unfair care system in many societies and its link with women’s disenfranchisement and increased vulnerability to domestic violence, COVID-19 is also however creating space for change. Laura Pautassi highlights the importance of both valuing care as intense work and recognising it as a human right (the right to care, to be cared for and to self-care) that would then lead to the implementation of “universal and transversal”, gender-focused policies, with “regular budgets”, at the governmental, business, and social levels.  

A number of the blogs also highlight the catastrophic effects of the pandemic on children. Aoife Nolan and Judith Bueno de Mesquita draw attention to the devastating effects on children of both the virus and state responses to the pandemic that limit or regress children’s rights. This includes the impact of lockdown on mental health, the ability to play, parent incomes and access to food, and the effect of school closures on the right to education and its exacerbation of inequality. This is not just confined to developing countries. According to Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Sara Bailey, in the UK many children are also being denied their right to education due to a lack of IT equipment such as laptops and broadband. However, like in many other situations, this can open up space for re-examining and remedying the situation of the most marginalised. With specific regards to school closures, Ann Skelton focuses on how COVID-19 can help reset priorities to ensure that those who are the most disadvantaged receive the most assistance. It is clear that not all schools can open at the same time, and a staggered approach could also increase inequality since those children in the schools least likely to be COVID-19 ready for re-opening are most likely to be receiving poor quality education and have very limited access to online resources. Given this reality, Anne Skelton argues that governments must realise their immediate obligation to plan for the full reinstatement of schools with particular attention on those most likely to be left behind, and use equitable and innovative re-entry strategies to address the needs of all students.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its guidance to States in responding to the pandemic, also underlines the importance of the principles of equality and non-discrimination both in addressing the crises and in making sure that society maintains resilience to future crises. As Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes (member of CESCR) highlights in his blog, these include making sure that the mobilisation of resources does not fall on the most vulnerable and should be “based on criteria of progressive taxation and distributive justice”; it is also necessary to take appropriate special measures targeting those in poverty and population groups who experience discrimination such as women and migrants, who may be disproportionately impacted by the crises.   proportionately impacted by the crises.


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