TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Feb21/04)
19 February 2021
Third World Network

UN: COVID-19 crisis exacerbating inequalities, undermining human rights
Published in SUNS #9289 dated 19 February 2021

Geneva, 19 Feb (Kanaga Raja) – The unprecedented and multiple crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on all sectors of society worldwide, exacerbating existing inequalities and undermining the enjoyment of people’s human rights, according to a United Nations report.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted in a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of human rights around the world.

The report (A/HRC/46/19) is to be presented at the upcoming 46th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which takes place from 22 February to 23 March.

According to the report, much of the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been exacerbated by a failure to address previously existing structural causes of inequality, social exclusion and deprivation, and the inability of many countries, rich and poor alike, to meet the basic needs of a sizeable proportion of their populations.

“The current multi-faceted crisis has unmasked the strong linkages that have existed between race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and health outcomes, and which persist to this day,” it said.

The report said emergency measures taken by countries around the world in an attempt to check the spread of the virus, sometimes involving restrictions on the free movement of persons, goods and services, have had serious consequences for human rights at times disproportionate to any of the public health gains made.

“Loss of life and livelihood, disruption of education and health services, and increased violence – particularly violence against women and other vulnerable persons – have undermined the human rights and dignity of millions of people around the world,” it added.


According to the report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as at 1 January 2021, more than 81 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1.8 million deaths, had been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A large majority of those deaths were of older persons, who face higher risks owing also to pre-existing health conditions.

The ability of many States to respond to a pandemic of the current magnitude has been compromised by years of under-investment in public health services and a lack of universal access to health care, it said.

“Overwhelmed public health-care systems have led to disruptions in people’s access to health care for other non- COVID-19 conditions, both physical and mental, including women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.”

The lack of investment in mental health promotion, prevention and care even before the onset of the pandemic has resulted in inadequate responses to the enormous mental health needs generated by the pandemic, given the scale of those adversely affected.

Lack of access to public health care has excluded people with limited financial resources to undergo testing, thus contributing to an acceleration in infection rates.

“The health impact of the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of a strong public universal health-care system based on the principle of solidarity and protection for all, regardless of a person’s ability to pay,” said the report.

While recent progress in developing several safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines holds the promise of putting an end to the pandemic, many obstacles must be overcome to ensure their universal availability, accessibility and uptake, it added.

Citing a recent report, the High Commissioner said that in 67 countries, 90 per cent of the population will have no access to a COVID-19 vaccine, while certain wealthy countries have already purchased enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over by the end of 2021 (assuming that all candidate vaccines are given regulatory approval following clinical trials).

“The foremost challenge is to ensure equitable distribution of new-generation vaccines against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, to the populations of all nations, both rich and poor, without discrimination,” said the report by the High Commissioner.

The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequality in the world, it emphasized, citing World Bank estimates that found that the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis has forced 88 million to 115 million people in the world into extreme poverty, reversing a decade of progress in poverty reduction efforts.

All the while, it said, the world’s richest people and corporations continued to enjoy increased wealth during the pandemic, particularly in the technology and health-related sectors.

The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented number of global job losses. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), between April and June 2020 alone, 495 million full-time jobs were lost, with nearly half of the global workforce at risk of losing their livelihoods, it added.

More than one in six young people have stopped working since the beginning of the pandemic. Workers in the informal economy, a majority of whom are women and include more than three quarters of young workers in the world, have suffered significantly from lockdowns and are over-represented in many of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality and food services.

The report said COVID-19 and the measures taken to stop its spread have disrupted food production and supply chains, undermining the right to food and exacerbating an already high level of food insecurity.

Lack of access to affordable food exacerbates hunger and starvation, and may force individuals into poverty and extreme poverty, while increasing inequality within and between countries and reversing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, said the High Commissioner.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic may add between 83 and 132 million people to the almost 690 million people in the world considered undernourished in 2019.

The High Commissioner said that poor quality housing and living conditions increase the risk of infection and the spread of the virus, with approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide living in homelessness and inadequate housing, often in over-crowded conditions and lacking access to water and sanitation.

“At a time when access to water and sanitation are a key to ending the pandemic, more than 3 billion people worldwide have inadequate access at home to water and soap to ensure basic hygiene.”

The report said people in informal settlements – roughly one billion worldwide – are subjected to particularly poor living conditions. As a result, the ability of such populations to protect themselves from COVID-19 is severely affected.

Although the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of social protections in times of crisis, the human right to social security and protection is not yet a practical reality for most people, it added.

Around the world, some 71 per cent of people, including almost two thirds of the world’s children, have no social security coverage, or only partial and inadequate coverage. Women working in the informal economy frequently lack social protection.

The pandemic has created a disruption worldwide in access to education, a key enabling right for the realization of human rights more generally. Large-scale school closures have affected nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries, said the report.

For those without supportive and well-resourced home environments, including access to the Internet, the impact may be catastrophic, with lifelong effects, as many children may never be able to close the gap in their education caused by the pandemic or, in some cases, even return to school, said the High Commissioner.

Children are faced with higher levels of physical and psychological violence, including maltreatment and sexual abuse. In addition, forced child labour is on the rise, as are forced child marriage, exploitation and trafficking.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide and its impact in daily life, preventing many disadvantaged children, especially those with special needs, from continuing their education with the help of state-of-the-art distance-learning tools,” said the report.

It also said that the pandemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples, exacerbating structural inequalities with respect to their enjoyment of social and economic rights. “Higher mortality rates of elderly indigenous people due to COVID-19 threatens the culture of indigenous communities, their languages and their traditions.”

Gender-based violence against indigenous women and forced or early marriage, and harmful ancestral practices such as female genital mutilation, are reported to be on the increase in some communities.

Furthermore, it said migrants, people of Asian heritage and other groups have been singled out and targeted as scapegoats during the pandemic because of an unfounded fear that such persons might be carriers of COVID-19.

Ethnic minority communities are disproportionately represented in COVID-19 infection and mortality statistics owing to a variety of factors: over-representation in essential work sectors, socioeconomic disadvantage, poor housing conditions and various other disparities.

“In some countries, Latinos, black and indigenous persons are roughly three times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19 and at a younger age.”

The impact of the pandemic on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as on internally displaced persons, has been significant. Border closures have left millions of migrants stranded and many seeking to return to their own countries, said the report.

Loss of employment and wages as a result of COVID-19 are leading to a decline in migrant remittances, with a devastating impact on the approximately 800 million people in destination countries relying on such remittances for their economic survival.

The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Women are over-represented in the sectors most affected by the crisis, namely the care, retail sales and hospitality and tourism sectors, said the report.

Globally, women are exposed to a greater risk of contracting the virus: 88 per cent of personal care workers and 69 per cent of health professionals are female.

Given the preponderance of women in the informal sector – of which the garment sector is a major component, especially in South and Southeast Asia – employment insecurity, wage disparities and a lack of social security have taken their toll on the livelihoods of women during the pandemic, said the report.


According to the report, the pandemic has highlighted the need to listen to and learn from affected communities.

In this context, the report presents several select good practices of Member States in their efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, Algeria has assisted families in need by granting emergency financial assistance (some 2.2 million people to date). It has also granted longer-term financial aid to craftsmen and other semi-professional workers.

In close collaboration with civil society, particular attention has been paid to the needs of older persons, persons with disabilities, women, migrants, refugees, homeless persons and the poor.

In Antigua and Barbuda, telecommunications firms have agreed to waive all fees for calls made to domestic violence help-lines.

Meanwhile, as part of its National COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, Malawi has extended social security coverage by introducing a programme targeting 172,000 low-income households in urban and peri-urban areas and paying them the equivalent of a minimum wage ($47) per month for six months via mobile cash transfer.

The Republic of Korea has taken an innovative approach to suicide prevention during the pandemic.

The Seoul Youth Guarantee Centre, a government-operated online counseling programme created for the purpose of suicide prevention, has been greatly expanded in response to the 36 per cent increase in the number of women who deliberately harmed themselves during the first half of 2020 as a result of pandemic-related restrictions. The original target number of 700 counselors has also been doubled, said the report.


“The pandemic has demonstrated clearly how interconnected today’s world is, and the extent to which the safety and security of each of us is dependent upon the safety and security of all,” said the report.

“The pathway to a stronger, more resilient future requires new levels of global cooperation and international solidarity,” it added.

Against this backdrop, the High Commissioner for Human Rights made the following recommendations to Member States:

(a) Coordinate economic policies, including monetary policies, to ensure that the recovery of one group of countries is not achieved at the expense of another;

(b) Support the ring-fencing of resources for social spending, and provide international support through loans and grants, especially for the many least developed countries, small island developing States and middle-income countries that have been hit the hardest by the crisis;

(c) Strengthen international cooperation for expanded debt relief and sustainability initiatives for developing countries, in accordance with the relevant commitments in the 2030 Agenda and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda;

(d) Treat COVID-19 vaccines as a global public good, put in place a well-coordinated global approach to the development and distribution of vaccines, and ensure access for all people on a non-discriminatory basis; and

(e) Urgently re-evaluate broad sectoral sanctions in countries facing the coronavirus pandemic, authorize humanitarian exemptions to sanction measures for essential medical equipment and supplies, while countries under sanction measures should provide transparent information, accept offers of necessary humanitarian assistance, and adopt measures to guarantee that national and international organizations can carry out their humanitarian work unhindered.