Addressing discrimination and inequality in the global response to COVID-19
In the short time since the start of this new decade, life has changed dramatically across the world. COVID-19 has now spread to more than 185 countries. The number of recorded cases has surpassed 3.5 million. Families and friends across the globe are mourning the loss of more than 240,000 people. With the stated intention of controlling the spread of the virus and protecting lives, States are implementing unprecedented restrictions on movement both within and between countries (“lockdowns”), with significant and wide-ranging impacts on societies and economies.
As these measures have taken effect, it has become clear that, while the virus is indiscriminate, the impacts of state responses are not. In late April, launching a new report, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres stated that the pandemic is a public health emergency “that is fast becoming a human rights crisis”. As that UN report highlights, there is clear and growing evidence that state responses in delivery of healthcare, in the implementation of lockdown measures and in policies designed to mitigate economic impacts are having disproportionate and discriminatory impacts. These effects are being experienced by all groups exposed to discrimination, including, but not limited to, older persons, children, persons with disabilities, women, ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples, persons, persons living with HIV and AIDS, and migrants, refugees and stateless persons. They are impacting upon the enjoyment of rights ranging from freedom of movement to access to education and from access to information to an adequate standard of living, together, of course, with the rights to life and to health.
These discriminatory impacts are occurring despite the fact that almost every State in the world has accepted international legal obligations to ensure the equal enjoyment of human rights, without discrimination. At a bare minimum, these obligations require that the State – whether through law, policy or practice – does not discriminate in its actions. They also create a duty to provide effective protection from all forms of discrimination by private actors and to make reasonable accommodation when required. These obligations apply to all: citizen and non-citizen, irrespective of their identity, status or beliefs. They are “immediate and cross-cutting”. They apply in respect of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Crucially, while international law recognises that in states of emergency, States can limit the enjoyment of certain human rights, their obligations to ensure nondiscrimination remain – emergency measures must not discriminate either in their purpose or their effects.
As this unprecedented global crisis unfolds, it is clear that States are failing to meet their nondiscrimination obligations. Their responses – largely driven by a stated intention to protect lives – are having a wide range of discriminatory impacts. While many of these effects may be unintended, the lack of intent does not limit States’ obligations. Moreover, with new evidence emerging each week, it is clear that we cannot yet foresee the full range of discriminatory impacts which this crisis will engender.
State obligations to assess and address equality impacts
We call on all States to incorporate equality impact assessment as an integral element of their ongoing public health, economic and social policy responses to the crisis. It is only through assessing the equality impacts of their policy responses that States can ensure that their actions comply with their binding non-discrimination obligations under international law. Equality impact assessment is the only way that States can anticipate and eliminate the discriminatory effects of their policy responses, including those which are unintended or unforeseen.
Equality impact assessments must be aimed at identifying and eliminating the actual or potential discriminatory effects of State policies. They should also ensure that policies and programmes respond to and accommodate the different needs of diverse groups with due consideration to intersectionality and that they do not create or exacerbate inequality.
In order to ensure that States comply with their international legal obligations, equality impact assessments should be pre-emptive, coming before new policy measures are adopted and before any changes are made to policies which are already in force. Where measures have already been adopted, equality impact assessment should be undertaken as an urgent priority. Where discriminatory impacts are identified, measures to eliminate any discrimination or inequality of impact should be taken with immediate effect. States must ensure that they involve and consult all groups at risk of discrimination and experiencing inequality in conducting equality impact assessment. States must ensure that equality impact assessment is an essential element of their monitoring and review of policy responses to the pandemic and of their on the ground effects. Both initial assessments and ongoing monitoring must be informed by the collection of data on the experiences and outcomes of groups exposed to discrimination.
All policy responses to the crisis must be subject to assessment, including those relating to the management of healthcare and other resources, the restriction of civil liberties, closure of businesses and educational establishments, adaptation of support services, economic and social protection programmes, immigration and border control and the use of new information technologies. The actual or potential equality impacts of actions by both state and private actors must be assessed.
A renewed commitment to the creation of an equal world
Furthermore, we call on all States to emerge from the current crisis with a renewed commitment to the elimination of all forms of discrimination and the creation of a world in which all are “free and equal in dignity and rights”. The wide range of unintended discriminatory consequences of state responses to the crisis – ranging from the increased exposure to the virus amongst ethnic minority populations to the rise in domestic violence – only serve to underline the deep inequalities within our societies and the failure to address the systemic discrimination which feeds them.
This crisis has shone a harsh and unforgiving light on these existing inequalities. We must emerge from it ready to forge a world in which all can participate equally. Arundhati Roy has described this pandemic as a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next”. We call on States to ensure that we walk through this portal leaving no one behind, and with a shared determination to create an equal world.