Human rights, including social and economic rights, may seem to some a luxury during a crisis. But that is when they are needed most.
We are going through dire times. A public-health crisis with significant social and economic effects is happening in front of us. The coronavirus has been spreading worldwide without discrimination. Yet the global socio-economic structure, riddled with deep inequalities, aggravates the unfortunate consequences for the disadvantaged.
In the wake of decades of neoliberal governance, millions around the world encounter the pandemic with no protective social structure in place: they have no social security, no access to health care, no social protection. Some have no place to call home and some even have no country …
History shows such outbreaks disproportionately affect the vulnerable—those who have less access to health care, to private savings and even to the welfare state. Millions of working people who live from pay cheque to pay cheque, in most cases without any job security, are also unprotected. The neoliberal legacy of flexible labour contracts, low risk-sharing and weakened welfare states is a dark overhang.
The crisis is a reminder of how broken the system is. And it should be seen as an urgent call not only for solidarity but also for a systemic change—a change that will provide security and welfare for ordinary people in the long term and a change that will build resistance against such crises. Such a comprehensive response entails solidarity and co-operation at the political level as well.
Multilateralism has to work; international solidarity has to be strong. We know how critical this is from experience: the Council of Europe has been a project of sustainable peace and co-operation, introduced as an international response to the devastating impact of World War II.
Once again, in the aftermath of the corona crisis, the world will choose between two alternatives. It can choose to rely more heavily on authoritarianism and high walls, to give a supposed sense of security, and to continue with the neoliberal order, in which all right-based public services are recommodified as private goods. Or we will introduce a true participatory democracy, a strong multilateralism and a dependable welfare state, whereby public services are provided as a human right.
As the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing just how fragile our societies, economies and democracies can be, it is time for us to follow the progressive path. It is time to address the underlying structure that makes our societies so vulnerable, which drives inequality and environmental destruction. Any attempt to tackle the short- and long-term effects of the crisis needs to be holistic.
The policy set should encompass health-related, social and economic policies. We need to protect our health workers who are combating the virus on the front lines. We need to ensure that people can stay at home without being concerned about making ends meet. As the private sector is at a standstill, governments should bolster economic activity with expansionary policies which prioritise the interests of working people and the disadvantaged. Such a holistic approach should take into account all human rights, including economic and social rights.
In this respect, past resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and decisions vis-à-vis the European Social Charter (ESC) can be taken as blueprints to keep the social ship afloat in uncharted waters.
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Clearly, health concerns lie at the core of the outbreak and its repercussions. Therefore our priority has to be ensuring protection of the right to health, a right enshrined clearly in article 11 of the ESC.
The health hazards for many workers, especially health workers, compulsory-service providers and many others who are unprotected, are rising. We have to ensure their right to health is not overridden by the requirement to work. Article 2 of the ESC requires elimination of ‘risks in inherently dangerous or unhealthy occupations’. Article 3 calls for safety and health regulations which ensure the ‘right to safe and healthy working environments’—a critical right at such a time.
The health concerns have led all countries—though to differing degrees and with different methods—to put in place self-isolation and social distancing, with a huge impact on the social and economic working of all systems. For example, tele-schooling is now in operation across many countries in different forms.
The right to education of children, especially the vulnerable and marginalised, is under threat. We need to ensure that the authorities take the necessary precautions to ensure the right to education of both children and young adults is well protected—rights which are clearly affirmed in the ESC article 17.
The right to employment is under great stress. Social distancing is leading to a deep economic collapse globally. We have to ensure that the rights of those who are unemployed or employed are well protected, in line with articles 2 and 3 of the ESC. The right to social protection and a strong welfare state is needed more than ever under such a pandemic—enshrined in the ESC articles 12 and 30.
Any policy put forth to tackle the corona crisis has to be discrimination-proof. The age-skewed mortality risk so far has led at times to unwarranted, discriminatory acts against the elderly. Migrants already under huge distress also need to see their rights protected. Protecting the elderly, children, people with disabilities and migrants is ever more critical these days. Articles 15, 19 and 23, among others, of the ESC require all authorities to do so.
In short, we have to ensure that any approach to fighting the direct and indirect effects of the coronavirus is holistic, takes into account the structural nature of the crisis and ensures that the fundamental human rights—including economic and social rights—of each and every individual are well protected.