Poverty and in-equality at the heart of the post Covid-19 human rights agenda

Poverty and in-equality at the heart of the post Covid-19 human rights agenda

Morten Kjaerum, Director Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law


Author’s Note: The text is built upon my chapter in the book Covid-19 and Human Rights, eds Morten Kjaerum, Martha Davies, Amanda Lyons, Routledge 2021; and the book Human Rights and Poverty, Eds Martha Davies, Morten Kjaerum, Amanda Lyons, Edward Elgar, 2021

The post Covid-19 scenario

According to the Freedom in the World Index, 2020 was the fifteenth consecutive year that experienced a global decline in freedom. The trend was accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis. Governments across continents have to varying degrees sidestepped democratic procedures and ruled by decrees, through speeches and administrative circulars or by merely tweeting new orders for how citizens should act. Some countries have applied or adopted emergency legislation, which lacks basic rule of law and human rights safeguards, and taken measures that go beyond what domestic legislation and international human rights law permit in relation to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, and the like. In addition, the stringent limits on temporary derogations (exceptions, relaxing o the rules), including strict proportionality and necessity requirements and formal notification procedures in relevant human rights conventions have been disregarded.(See RWI/OHCHR study).

These illiberal and authoritarian trends coincide with what the World Bank predicts will become the deepest recession since World War II, more than twice as deep as the recession following the financial crisis. This includes a potential 4 to 5 percent decline in global GDP in 2020 with some countries reaching a 10 to 15 percent decline in GDP if not more. Consequently, between seventy and a hundred million people will be pushed into extreme poverty erasing most of the progress made in the past five years in reducing extreme poverty. Abut 177 million people will fall below the international poverty line. More than 250 million people are at risk of acute hunger, according to the World Food Programme.

In this scenario, global and local inequality stand out with immense clarity. In some countries, social security schemes provide a safety net for those at risk of unemployment but in the least developed countries hundreds of millions of people have been thrown into situations of extreme precariousness. Social protection is a human right according to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; nonetheless, according to International Labour Organisation, 55 percent of the global population is completely unprotected. Thus, the global inequality that was already serious prior to the COVID-19 crisis will now be severely deepened.

In-equality and poverty a global agenda

The poverty and inequality agenda following in the slipstream of the COVID-19 crisis will encompass many dimensions, depending on the communities that are the target of the discussion. However, with the adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, states committed to addressing inequality and to ‘[e]nd poverty in all its forms everywhere.’ In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals, the intent of the SDGs is to establish a common global agenda rather than dividing the world into developing and developed countries. This has offered a unique opportunity to challenge inequality and poverty on all continents, not limiting the efforts to the developing countries with traditional development approaches but rather opening a global dialogue on how to jointly tackle poverty and inequality where it prevails.

In fighting in-equality and poverty a key element is how to complement short-term relief with the creation of resilience by a longer term approach of supporting and strengthening the capabilities of people falling into poverty. The COVID-19 crisis had led to more than 500 million people losing their jobs and thereby hundreds of millions of people falling from positions in society where their capabilities were recognized into poverty and idleness. This offers an opportunity for a breakthrough in basing future poverty strategies on people’s personal strengths and capabilities rather than on their vulnerability. The right to education, health, housing and other key economic and social rights are cornerstones in this regard.

New social contract

The UN Secretary General has called for a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted where the current social contract has failed and where it is being eroded. Being mindful of the vast differences between countries and regions it can be said that the current social contract builds to a large extent on the traditional structures of the labor market as it was developed since the second half of the nineteenth century. The globalized economy, including global supply chains, automation, artificial intelligence, the gig economy and the demise of labor organizations, have eroded traditional structures and contractual relations which historically contributed to a sense of security and trust among workers. The COVID-19 crisis has made this clear with millions of people losing their income now working in the precariat; losing their jobs in the garment sector or other industries in the Global South due to supply chain disruption; and experiencing deep inequalities along ethnic and gender lines. States have failed; social partners have not delivered or do not care sufficiently about equality issues; and market forces have shown their incapacity to be entrusted with creating a system based on solidarity and equality. The crisis has illustrated how vast numbers of people have been at the fringes of the existing social contract. As underscored by the UNSG, the new social contract has to build on these lessons learned addressing status and economic inequality as well as upscaling the protection and fulfilment of economic and social rights.

The new social contract must however go beyond economic and status inequality, and address what has been labelled the inequality of attention or poverty of satisfaction (Kennedy 1968). This encompasses the feeling of not belonging or being listened to, either because the person was not given the skills needed to succeed in the modern world or the person’s skills were not utilized. Feeling unheard, invisible and incapable of accessing core social and economic rights are important drivers for the success of the populist movements in the Global North.  People at the extreme right as well as other extremist groups build their understanding of their place in society around the feeling of being excluded or a feeling of poverty of satisfaction. In the Global South the same sense of not belonging has been seen in some studies as a driver behind migration flows because people leave, not just because of lack of work, but because they lack agency to impact society and their own lives due to discrimination, gender inequality or corruption. These weaknesses in governance systems limit people’s potential and make decisions of authorities non-transparent with little or no accountability. The feeling of no future and no way to impact the situation is an important driver for anger and the desire to leave. Inclusion, higher levels of economic equality as well as equality of attention are key components of the new social contract, alongside civil, economic, political, social and cultural rights A defining moment.

The Covid-19 crisis offers a unique possibility to follow up on the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, underscoring the interrelatedness and interdependence of civil, economic, political, social and cultural rights. We witness an American president rolling out important new long-term social programs addressing the issues; we see more than 40 African states that have strengthened the social support systems. Despite the bleak outlook there are developments to build on while building forward fairer.

The magnitude, severity and global impact of the COVID-19 crisis entails a profound impact on the future of local, regional and global interactions including how human rights unfold. The COVID-19 crisis is a defining moment, and the responsibilities resembles what leaders in the past were called to do during and after profound crises such as World War II.


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