The Coronavirus outbreak has amplified existing inequalities and discrimination, making the battle of ‘leaving no one behind’ all the more difficult.

On 15 April 2020, the Right On initiative held a web chat titled ‘Inequality and discrimination during COVID-19’. The discussants for the occasion were Mr Rui Macieira (Permanent Representative of Portugal, United Nations Office, Geneva), Ms Leilani Farha (United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing), Dr Hanna Kienzler (Assistant Professor, Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, King’s College London), Dr Frans Viljoen (Director, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria), and Dr Joanna Bourke Martignoni (Senior Research Fellow, Geneva Academy).

It’s hard to #stayathome when you don’t have one

The panellists touched upon the inequalities and discrimination that policies adopted in response to COVID-19 have brought about. It was noted that the basic universal ‘stay at home’ policy that is being promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments worldwide has exposed that such measures do not work for a significant portion of the population, i.e., persons who do not have a home and account for 2% of the world’s population. In other words, ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ have a different meaning for individuals of different social statuses. In the context of housing, the crisis has shed light on divides in the developed and developing worlds, with the example of rural communities in South Africa used to illustrate the widening gaps.

The pandemic also shed light on issues such as housing rent, mortgages, and evictions from settlements, as well as the exercises of fundamental rights such as the right to sanitation that is often downplayed in discussions.

Government action on COVID-19

The speakers also discussed other measures that governments have taken to prevent a spike in divides and discrimination of individuals. While most governments have acted swiftly, ideological differences in terms of adopted measures can be observed. Some of the actions taken in Portugal were cited as exemplary and include evasion of practices that could disrupt the productive capacity of Portugal and consequently make the economic recovery period more difficult. The provision of support to the most vulnerable communities, such as extension of unemployment benefits, is another example of policies intended to mitigate the social and economic impact of COVID-19 in Portugal.

That said, discussants underscored that governments in least developed countries (LDCs) have struggled to deal with challenges brought about by the health crisis. Estimates show that some 85 LDCs have requested assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to push their economies through the pandemic. This will have consequences not only in terms of the COVID-19 response, but also of the realisation of sustainable development goals (SDGs) and other global development objectives.

Health rights come into focus

The discussion also evolved around the exercise of the right to health which has been equally affected by the rise in inequalities and discrimination, in particular against those on the margins of society. Studies have shown noticeable poor health outcomes and premature deaths amongst individuals in precarious situations, persons with disabilities, and those of certain ethnic backgrounds. Whereas the provision of face masks, social distancing, or vaccines is simply not enough to tackle COVID-19 as a medical, social, and political problem, it was highlighted that thorough reflections on the ‘cause of the causes’ are needed in order to address the emerging voids.

Prejudices and violence against women

COVID-19 has also led to a surge in prejudices and violence against women worldwide. The speakers stressed that it has provoked unfounded stigmatisation of certain groups including those of non-nationals who have been labelled in certain situations as responsible for the propagation of the virus. Speaking of the rise in violence against women during COVID-19, it was underscored that even though short-term interventions could help improve safety momentarily, a better approach would be to go to the grassroots level as not to miss the opportunity of tackling the underlying reasons of domestic violence.