(Source: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre)

The key factor in turning this disaster of a pandemic into an opportunity to reset priorities and improve prospects for a better future is political will, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday (9 December).

In a strongly worded media statement, Ms Bachelet described 2020 as a “terrible, devastating” year that has scarred so many people in various ways—the COVID1-9 pandemic leading to over 67 million people infected and 1.6 million dead so far.

Beyond that, the pandemic has devastated the global economy and caused striking impact on employment, income, education, health, and food supply for hundreds of millions of people.

It has also resulted in a massive setback to development as well as efforts to alleviate poverty and raise the status of women and girls, said the High Commissioner.

Specifically, Ms Bachelet focused on how the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the “fissures and fragilities” in societies and exposed “all our failures to invest in building fair and equitable societies.”

“It has shown the weakness of systems that have failed to place a central focus on upholding human rights,” she added.

While noting the extraordinary progress made recently in vaccine development, Ms Bachelet stressed that a vaccine alone cannot resolve this pandemic or heal the damaged it has caused.

“States need not only to distribute these vaccines equitably all over the world – they need to rebuild economies, repair the damage done by the pandemic, and address the gaps that it has exposed,” she said.

Outlining possible futures for the world at large—emerging from the crisis worse off, going back to normal which led us here in the first place, or recovering better—the High Commissioner stressed that the “vaccine” to hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, and more is human rights.

Pointing to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by many countries, she said, “COVID-19 has shone a stark spotlight on our failure to uphold those rights to the best of our ability, not just because we couldn’t, but because we neglected to – or chose not to,”

She went on, “The failure of many countries to invest sufficiently in universal and primary healthcare, in accordance with the right to health, has been exposed as extremely short-sighted. These vital preventive measures are costly, but nothing like as costly as failing to invest in them has proved to be.”

She then stressed that the politicisation of the pandemic by some political leaders who have downplayed its effects or casually spoke of “herd immunity” while dismissing the massive loss of life “for the greater good” is “utterly reprehensible”.

On top of that, the discounting of scientific evidence and processes and well as the spread and encouragement of disinformation and conspiracy theories only served to further division.

“These actions have plunged a knife into the heart of that most precious commodity, trust. Trust between nations, and trust within nations. Trust in government, trust in scientific facts, trust in vaccines, trust in the future,” she lamented.

“If we are to bring about a better world in the wake of this calamity, as our ancestors undoubtedly did in the wake of World War II, we have to rebuild that trust in each other.”

The High Commissioner went on to detail how the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on individuals and groups who are marginalised and suffer discrimination—particularly people of African descent as well as those of ethnic, national, and religious minorities as well as indigenous peoples.

“This has been the case in some of the world’s richest countries, where the mortality rate of some racial and ethnic minorities has been up to three times that of the overall population,” she said.

“When COVID-19 hit, members of discriminated groups and indigenous peoples were over-exposed to contagion because of their low-paid and precarious work in specific industries. Many of the people we suddenly started to recognize and refer to as essential – health care workers, cleaners, transport workers, shop employees – come from such minorities.”

She stressed, “Over the past 11 months, the poor have become poorer, and those suffering systemic discrimination have fared worst of all.”

Children with limited or no internet access have fallen behind in school or dropped out altogether, with girls especially badly affected, she noted, adding that the negative impact of the pandemic is “so vast and wide-ranging it is almost impossible for us to grasp its enormity”.

“Had adequate social and economic protections been in place for a much higher proportion of the world’s population, in poor countries and in rich ones – had we applied the human rights vaccine – we would not be in such a bad state as we are today,” she said.

“COVID-19 has very clearly demonstrated that inequalities and discrimination not only harm the individuals who are directly affected, and unfairly impacted – they create shock waves that ripple across the whole of society.”

The High Commissioner, who is a former President of Chile, also mentioned how essential workers themselves were “inexcusably put at risk” due to shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) as the pandemic surged.

Additionally, the impact on women have been “particularly devastating”, she said, noting the rise in domestic violence across the world as well as women having no choice but to leave the labour market in order to care for children and the elderly who are now home all the time.

“In some areas, women’s rights risk being set back decades, including through more limited access to sexual and reproductive rights,” she added.

“If we are to recover better, women will need to play a much greater role in decision-making and priority-setting. It is no coincidence that in a world where so few countries have women leaders, several of the countries viewed as having handled the pandemic most effectively were in fact led by women.”

Moving on, Ms Bachelet touches on discrimination, describing it as one of the defining features of this year. In particular, she touched on the issue of racial injustice and police brutality which was brought into focus after the killing of American George Floyd which sparked worldwide protests.

She also noted the “perfect storm” in Yemen where “five years of conflict and violations, disease, blockades, and shortage of humanitarian funding, set against an existing backdrop of poverty, poor governance and lack of development, is pushing the country remorselessly towards full-scale famine.”

Beyond that, rights to free expression, to assemble and to participate in public life have also been majorly affected during the pandemic. However, Ms Bachelet stressed that this is not because of warranted movement restrictions to curb the virus. Instead, it is due to “the actions of some governments taking advantage of the situation to shut down political dissent and criticism, including by arresting civil society actors and journalist.”

“Some appear to have also been using COVID fears and restrictions as a way to tilt elections in favour of the ruling party,” she added.

The High Commissioner stressed, “the pandemic has left us exposed, vulnerable, and weakened. Yet, in its devastation, it has also provided clear insights on how we can turn disaster into an opportunity to reset our priorities and improve our prospects for a better future.”

She emphasised the need for political will in order to channel money where it is most needed and to fight corruption. She added, “We need to address inequality, including with tax reforms that could help fund major socio-economic improvements.”

Here, she said that richer countries have to help poorer countries survive this crisis and recover better, adding that leaders in powerful country have to recognise that “our world can only meet global challenges through global cooperation.”

“Narrow nationalistic responses will simply undermine collective recovery,” she said.

“The first test of this will be our ability to ensure that new COVID vaccines and tools reach everyone who needs them. The pandemic has highlighted over and over again that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

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