openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Governments must ensure non-discrimination in pandemic responses

There is growing evidence that states’ responses to the COVID 19 pandemic are having discriminatory impacts. In response, an unprecedented coalition of global equality organisations has called for all policy responses to be subjected to equality impact assessment.

Jim Fitzgerald
20 May 2020, 12.45pm
Equal Rights Trust

Older persons who have been “abandoned” in care homes. Refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants unable to access healthcare, or even to social distance, in overcrowded conditions. Asian ethnic minorities subjected to racist and xenophobic hate speech and hate crimes and LGBTI persons at risk of being scapegoated. Persons with disabilities whose access to essential personal support is compromised by social distancing and self-isolation. Children from economically disadvantaged groups unable to access online classes. Women at greater risk of domestic violence. All are experiencing the discriminatory impacts of states’ responses to coronavirus

These cases are part of the growing body of evidence that states’ responses to the virus – in the delivery of healthcare, in the implementation of lockdown measures and in policies designed to mitigate economic impacts – are having disproportionate and discriminatory impacts. The effects are being felt by all groups exposed to discrimination and are impacting upon their enjoyment of a wide range of human rights. 

There are also credible warnings about the emerging and potential discriminatory impacts of policy responses. Organisations of persons with disabilities have raised grave concerns about triage protocols which could result in their denial of care, while the UN has voiced fears that decisions regarding allocation of  “scarce medical resources such as ventilators in intensive care units may be made solely on the basis of age”. Other groups have noted the potential for states’ responses to exacerbate inequalities for women and girls; create barriers which prevent transgender and intersex individuals from accessing essential health care; and fail to factor the stateless into decision-making. Meanwhile, as some states move to the next phase of their response, where restrictions which have previously been of a blanket nature are lifted for specific sectors of the economy or groups of people, the potential discriminatory consequences are myriad.

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In response, the Equal Rights Trust has brought together a group of leading global equality organisations to issue an urgent call to action. Our call to action brings together the Association for Women’s Rights in Development; the Child Rights International NetworkEquality Now; the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality RightsHelpAge International; the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion; the International Disability Alliance; the International Disability and Development Consortium; the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association; the Minority Rights GroupOutRight Action International; and the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The unprecedented nature of this coalition – uniting the leading global advocates for the rights of children, older persons, women, persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous peoples, LGBTI persons, refugees and stateless persons – speaks to the severity of our shared concern at the actual and potential discriminatory impacts of state responses to the virus. 

We have united to issue a simple call to action: states must meet their obligations, under international human rights law, to ensure non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. 

Almost every state in the world has accepted international legal obligations to ensure the equal enjoyment of human rights, without discrimination. These obligations apply to all: citizen and non-citizen, irrespective of their identity, status or beliefs. They are immediate and cross-cutting. They apply even where discriminatory effects are unintended or unforeseen. They are not subject to suspension in states of emergency. 

At a bare minimum, these obligations require that the state – whether through law, policy or practice – does not discriminate in its actions. As the pandemic unfolds, it is clear that many are failing to meet this most basic duty.

We are calling on states to integrate equality impact assessments into their policy responses to COVID 19. It is only through these assessments – pre-emptive, consultative and driven by data – that states can anticipate and eliminate the discriminatory effects of their policy responses, including those which are unintended or unforeseen.

Failure to identify, understand and address the discriminatory impacts of their responses to the pandemic means states will fail to meet their obligations under international law. More importantly, it will mean that, as the world tries to fight the virus, the most marginalised in our societies will be disadvantaged, harmed, excluded and left behind.

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