UN: coronavirus will widen global inequality, unless urgent action is taken

Officials expressed a growing concern for the safety of prisoners amid the outbreak

FILE PHOTO: U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet gives a speach during a forum on women of African descent in San Jose December 3, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate/File Photo
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The coronavirus pandemic will lead to wider global inequality if vital measures are not taken to upgrade health and social systems, the UN Human Rights chief has warned.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, chaired the first-ever virtual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday. The video call was held to address the Covid-19 crisis.

“We do know vital measures must be taken to upgrade health and social systems to ensure the greatest possible support to those most affected by the epidemic,” Ms Bachelet, the former president of Chile, said. “We know we cannot afford to leave anyone behind in this effort, and we know that lockdowns cannot continue forever. Exit strategies must be carefully devised to ensure our societies and people recover,” she said.

The UN meeting coincided with the release of an Oxfam report that said the coronavirus pandemic could push half a billion people into poverty amid an economic fallout that would be more devastating than the 2008 global financial crisis.

"The estimates show that, regardless of the scenario, global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990," the report said, adding that governments around the world would need to mobilise at least $2.5 trillion (Dh9.18tn) to support developing countries.

Next week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank will hold its annual meeting to look into the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Ms Bachelet said the pandemic was having an adverse impact on inequalities in every society. “In developed countries, fault-lines in access to health care, in labour rights and social protections, in living-space, and in dignity are suddenly very visible.

“In developing countries, where a large percentage of the population may rely on daily income to survive, the impact could be far greater,” she said.

Ms Bachelet said that those with little access to healthcare and by necessity live in cramped conditions with poor sanitation, have no safety net or no clean water, will suffer the most in the pandemic unless urgent action was taken. She added that anyone in these situations would be less able to protect themselves from the virus, or to withstand a sharp drop in income.

“Unchecked, the pandemic is likely to create even wider inequalities amid extensive suffering,” she said.

Ms Bachelet called on governments to release those imprisoned without sufficient legal basis, who would be particularly vulnerable to being infected with Covid-19. During the call, Palestine’s ambassador, Rana Arabbi, said that there was a growing concern for Palestinian prisoners, and asked what the office was doing to ensure their health.

Ms Arabbi condemned the 13-year illegal Israeli blockade in Gaza, saying it made it harder for her country to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. “We must end the abuse and harassment inflicted by Israeli forces on vulnerable Palestinian communities to force them out of their homes to make way for an illegal annexation,” she said.

The UN Special Rapportuer on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, said on March 31 that continued sanctions on countries where food would be affected should be lifted to eradicate shortages during the coronavirus crisis. At Thursday’s virtual meeting, the ambassadors for Syria and Venezuela – two highly affected countries – welcomed calls for sanctions relief amid the pandemic.

“Solidarity and co–operation at international level remains indispensable,” the Syrian ambassador, Hussam Edin Aala, said.