People's Stories Equality

Governments should back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights
by Gabriela Bucher, Olivier De Schutter
Thomson Reuters Foundation, agencies
And so our world, scarred by human tragedy, came together. Leaders across the world agreed “to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person”. Calling for equality of “men and women and of nations large and small”. Later declaring “health as a fundamental right”. Pursuing “freedom from fear and want” for all.
The year of such lofty declarations is, sadly, not 2020. Not even amid a pandemic that has taken over a million lives. It was seventy-five years ago as governments in the wake of war founded the United Nations and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That same spirit is needed today. Human rights such as access to healthcare when falling sick, protection when faced with unemployment, or the right to simply participate in decisions which affect our lives are a calling for our time.
That rights such as these have been trampled upon, year by year, has allowed the coronavirus to wreak such devastation and threaten more darkness ahead.
Be it garment workers in Bangladesh, stitching clothes for hyper-profitable fashion chains, abused if they fail to meet targets.
Or the privatization of public health and education that then denies people their rights the world over – especially of women and girls.
The pharma monopolies which make medicines unaffordable for billions of people and threaten the same for a COVID-19 vaccine today. This is joined-up injustice.
There are systemic connections between these human rights abuses and today’s extreme form of capitalism. The past four decades saw governments slash taxes and regulation, weaken labor markets, loosen capital controls and privatize public goods, with the planet plundered. Such is our extremely unequal world in which the 1% came to own more than the 99% combined.
Then today’s pandemic hit us, profoundly exacerbating intersecting inequalities. You are hit hardest if you are living in poverty, Black, Indigenous or a person of color, or if you are a woman.
COVID-19 risks pushing more than two hundred million people into poverty. Social protection measures have been adopted by governments caught off-guard, but they are often temporary, full of gaps, and often insufficient to protect most people from falling in poverty.
Some have reaped great prosperity from this pain: billionaire wealth is now at a record high, increasing 27% in recent months.
What policies brought us here? The new Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index by Oxfam and Development Finance International, at the intersection of human rights and inequality, offers answers. It tells a story of a world unprepared for today’s pandemic.
The data shows how only one in six countries were spending the recommended minimum of 15% of budgets on health prior to the pandemic. In 103 countries at least one in three workers lacked basic protections like sick pay. Half of countries lack adequate laws against sexual assault.
The Index also contrasts a vast majority of countries failing to tackle inequality from the few that are. The USA trails 17 low-income countries on labor laws because of its anti-union policies and very low minimum wage. Half of India’s population, 700 million people, do not have access to basic healthcare.
While every country could do better, some are adopting more human rights-aligned policies. South Korea has boosted the minimum wage, taxed the rich more and invested more in health. Costa Rica has instituted universal healthcare over the past decade. It is little surprise that these countries, New Zealand, Norway and others that have shown commitment to equality have been better positioned to weather today’s pandemic.
Tackling the unsustainable inequality at the core of today’s capitalism is possible. Policies matter. Our time calls for universal social protection – and a Global Fund for Social Protection – and publicly-funded, publicly-delivered healthcare and education.
Universal measures are great equalizers, that reduce economic, racial and gender inequalities.
We can fund key services well by an increase in wealth and solidarity taxes on the richest. We can foster equitable business models, recognize care work as real work and pay all workers a living wage.
We can curb the emissions of the richest and set new economic ideals that go beyond GDP, and help solve the complex equation of eradicating poverty while remaining within planetary boundaries. We can ensure a People's Vaccine for COVID-19.
Our world, scarred by human tragedy, can yet come together. We urge the same level of imagination as the drafters of the Universal Declaration over seventy years ago. It is time for governments to back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights.
* Gabriela Bucher is the incoming Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights:
Oct. 2020
Covid-19 has exposed the negative impact of privatising vital public services, by present and former UN special rapporteurs
Global markets have failed to provide people with basic needs like housing and water, say present and former UN special rapporteurs - Leilani Farha, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Koumbou Boly Barry, Leo Heller, Olivier De Schutter, Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the catastrophic fallout of decades of global privatisation and market competition.
When the pandemic hit, we saw hospitals being overwhelmed, caregivers forced to work with virtually no protective equipment, nursing homes turned into morgues, long queues to access tests, and schools struggling to connect with children confined to their homes.
People were being urged to stay at home when many had no decent roof over their heads, no access to water and sanitation, and no social protection.
For many years, vital public goods and services have been steadily outsourced to private companies. This has often resulted in inefficiency, corruption, dwindling quality, increasing costs and subsequent household debt, further marginalising poorer people and undermining the social value of basic needs like housing and water. We need a radical change in direction.
There was a glimmer of hope when people seemed to recognise the crucial centrality of public services to the functioning of society. As French president Emmanuel Macron put it on 12 March, the pandemic had revealed that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market.
Take water, a commodity all the more vital as washing your hands is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the virus. About 4 billion people worldwide experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year.
In the Chilean Petorca province, for example, one avocado tree uses more water than the daily quota allocated to each resident. Despite increasing daily water allocation to residents, the ministry of health revoked this decision just eight days later – an indication of how authorities continue to put the interests of private companies above the rights of their people.
And what about the long-awaited vaccine? Recognising that we cannot rely on market forces, more than 140 world leaders and experts have called on governments and international institutions to guarantee that Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines are made available to all, without charge. But the reality is that pharmaceutical companies around the world are competing to sell the first vaccine.
The global mantra to practise physical distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus is meaningless for the 1.6 billion people living in grossly inadequate housing, let alone the 2% of the world’s population who are homeless. Yet most governments seem unwilling to step back into the housing arena to regulate the financial organisations that have helped create these conditions.
The financialisation of housing by these actors has for years resulted in higher rents, evicting low-income tenants, failing to properly maintain housing in good repair and hoarding empty units in order to increase their profits.
By continuing to opt for contracting out public goods and services, governments are paying lip service to their human rights obligations. Rights holders are transformed into the clients of private companies dedicated to profit maximisation and accountable not to the public but to shareholders.
This affects the core of our democracies, contributes to exploding inequalities and generates unsustainable social segregation.
We are six UN independent experts from many different backgrounds, current and former special rapporteurs on a range of economic, social and cultural rights. It is in this capacity that, together, we want to share this message: if human rights are to be taken seriously, the old construct of states taking a back seat to private companies must be abandoned.
New alternatives are necessary. It is time to say it loud and clear: the commodification of health, education, housing, water, sanitation and other rights-related resources and services prices out the poor and may result in violations of human rights.
States can no longer cede control as they have done. They are not absolved of their human rights obligations by delegating core goods and services to private companies and the market on terms that they know will effectively undermine the rights and livelihoods of many people.
It is equally crucial that multilateral organisations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, stop imposing financialised models and the privatisation of public services on countries.
This is also a pivotal moment for the human rights community. We call on all those committed to human rights to address the consequences of privatisation head on. Human rights can help articulate the public goods and services we want – participatory, transparent, sustainable, accountable, non-discriminatory and serving the common good.
We are in a state of emergency. This is probably the first of a series of larger crises awaiting us, driven by the growing climate emergency. The Covid-19 crisis is expected to push another 176 million people into poverty. Each of them may see their human rights violated unless there is a drastic change of model and investment in quality public services.
* Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky is the former UN independent expert on foreign debt and human rights; Koumbou Boly Barry is UN special rapporteur on the right to education; Olivier De Schutter is UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; and former UN special rapporteur on the right to food; Leilani Farha is the former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Leo Heller is UN special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona is the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

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Programme to facilitate poor countries' access to coronavirus vaccines, remains short of funding
by People’s Vaccine Alliance, UN Aids, agencies
Nov. 2020
Statement by UN Human Rights Experts: Universal access to vaccines is essential for prevention and containment of COVID-19 around the world. (OHCHR)
To date, there have been more than 49 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1.2 million deaths reported to WHO. This disease continues to prove more deadly than anticipated while the world carries on facing the cumulative and interconnected health, economic, social and human rights crises it has unleashed.
In October 2020, the World Bank estimated that the pandemic will push an additional of between 88 to 115 million people into extreme poverty this year, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021. The World Food Programme projected that 265 million people will face crisis levels of hunger unless direct action is taken, doubling their estimations of hungry people pre-COVID-19.
These and many other figures offer only a glimpse of the exorbitant human costs of the pandemic. At the national and international levels, COVID-19 has brought to the fore systemic inequalities, aggravated pre-existing institutional weaknesses including in health, food and procurement systems, and highlighted a lack of access to quality, accessible and affordable health care for all. Socio-economic inequality has deepened even further.
At a global level, inequalities are also increasing between countries with enough economic means to face the crises and those without. Responses to the pandemic have sometimes been used as a pretext by Governments and business enterprises to undermine or lessen international human rights commitments.
In our capacity as UN human rights experts, we emphasise that a global pandemic of this scale and human cost, with no clear end in sight, requires a concerted, principled and courageous response. All efforts to prevent, treat and contain COVID-19 must be based on the bedrock human-rights based principles of international solidarity, cooperation and assistance.
There is no room for nationalism or profitability in decision-making about access to vaccines, essential tests and treatments, and all other medical goods, services and supplies that are at the heart of the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all.
Since millions of people’s hope is that vaccines are developed safely and swiftly, that they are made universally available, that they are affordable, easily accessible, this statement aims at raising some of the critical human rights aspects that are intertwined with regard to the rights to life, to health and to international cooperation and assistance and to provide some recommendations for States.
* Access the full statement:
Sep. 2020
WHO-backed programme to facilitate poor countries' access to coronavirus vaccines, remains short of necessary funding. (AFP)
More than 60 developed nations have joined a WHO-backed programme to facilitate poor countries' access to coronavirus vaccines.
The World Health Organization has in coordination with the global vaccine alliance group Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) created a mechanism aimed at ensuring a more equitable distribution of any future Covid-19 vaccines.
But the mechanism, known as Covax, has struggled to raise the funds needed to provide for the 92 low-income countries and other economies that quickly signed up.
WHO had encouraged richer nations to step up to the plate by the end of last week and when the deadline fell, 64 were onboard with another 38 expected to join in "coming days", the three organisations said in a joint statement.
Among those who have signed up are "the European Commission on behalf of 27 EU member states plus Norway and Iceland," it said.
The United States, which under President Donald Trump has relentlessly criticised the WHO's handling of the pandemic and which is in the process of withdrawing from the organisation, is not on the list. And China, where the novel coronavirus first surfaced late last year, to date is also absent.
"The purpose of the Covax facility is to try to work with every country in the world," said Gavi chief Seth Berkley told a virtual briefing. "I can assure you that we have had conversations and will continue to have conversations with all countries," he said.
In addition to working to get more countries to join Covax, Berkley said there was also an ongoing dialogue with vaccine-producing countries about "if they have successful vaccines that come out, how we can make sure they are made available to others in the world."
The aim is for Covax to lay its hands on two billion doses of safe and effective vaccines by the end of 2021. But the mechanism is facing a range of significant challenges, not least a serious funding shortfall.
The WHO has said some $38 billion is needed for its overall ACT-Accelerator programme, which includes Covax, but also global collaboration towards developing and ensuring equitable access to tests and treatments for Covid-19, and strengthening health systems. But so far it has received just $3.0 billion of that.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the fact that so many countries -- representing nearly two-thirds of the global population -- had agreed to participate in the mechanism.
"Covid-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," he said, warning countries against scrambling to acquire vaccine stocks for their populations alone.
"Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery," he said. "This is not charity," he told journalists. "It's in every country's best interest. We sink or we swim together."
Sep. 2020
Small group of rich nations buys up more than half the future supply of leading COVID-19 vaccine contenders, reports Oxfam America a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Wealthy nations representing just 13 percent of the world’s population have already cornered more than half (51 percent) of the promised doses of leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates, Oxfam warned today, as the health and finance ministers of G20 countries prepare to meet virtually to discuss the global pandemic.
Oxfam analyzed the deals that pharmaceutical corporations and vaccine producers have already struck with nations around the world for the five leading vaccine candidates currently in phase 3 clinical trials, based on data collected by Airfinity.
“Access to a life-saving vaccine shouldn’t depend on where you live or how much money you have,” said Robert Silverman, Advocacy Manager in Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department. “The development and approval of a safe and effective vaccine is crucial, but equally important is making sure the vaccines are available and affordable to everyone. COVID-19 anywhere is COVID-19 everywhere.”
The efforts of rich countries, especially the US, to adopt a “me first” nationalistic approach prevents coordination and could prevent or delay the vaccine from reaching people who are at greatest risk, both living in developing countries and here at home, warned Oxfam.
Oxfam also warned that that corporations with leading vaccine candidates do not have the capacity to make enough vaccines for everyone who needs one. Even in the extremely unlikely event that all five vaccines succeed, nearly two thirds (61%) of the world’s population will not have a vaccine until at least 2022. It’s far more likely some of these experiments will fail, leaving the number of people without access even higher.
The calculations expose a broken system that protects the monopolies and profits of pharmaceutical corporations and favors wealthy nations, while artificially restricting production and leaving most of the world’s population waiting longer than necessary for a vaccine.
One of the leading vaccine candidates, developed by Moderna, has received $2.48 billion in committed taxpayers’ money. Despite this, the company has said it intends to make a profit from its vaccine and has sold the options for all of its supply to rich nations - at prices that range from $12-16 per dose in the US to around $35 per dose for other countries - putting protection out of reach for many people living in poverty.
While it may be making real efforts to scale up supply, according to reports, the company only has the capacity in place to produce enough for 475 million people, or 6 percent of the world’s population.
Oxfam and other organizations across the world are calling for a people’s vaccine – available to everyone, free of charge and distributed fairly based on need.
This will only be possible if pharmaceutical corporations allow vaccines to be produced as widely as possible by freely sharing their knowledge free of patents, instead of protecting their monopolies and selling to the highest bidder.
“Governments will prolong this crisis in all of its human tragedy and economic damage if they allow pharmaceutical companies to protect their monopolies and profits,” said Chema Vera, Interim Executive Director of Oxfam International.
“No single corporation will ever be able to meet the world’s need for a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s why we are calling on them to share their knowledge free of patents and to get behind a quantum leap in production to keep everyone safe. We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine.”
There are also large differences in the willingness of pharmaceutical companies to set aside supply for poorer nations. While Moderna has so far pledged doses of its vaccine exclusively to rich countries, AstraZeneca has pledged two-thirds (66 percent) of doses to developing countries. Although AstraZeneca has done a great deal to expand its production capacity by partnering with and transferring its technology to other manufacturers, it could still only supply up to 38 percent of the global population, and only half of this if its vaccine requires two doses.
“We in the AIDS movement have seen in the past how corporations use monopolies to artificially restrict supplies of life-saving medicines and inflate their prices,” Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under-Secretary General.
“UNAIDS and other members of the People’s Vaccine Alliance are calling for a new approach that puts public health first by sharing knowledge and maximizing supply. Anything short of that will lead to more deaths and economic chaos, forcing millions into destitution.”
The estimated cost of providing a vaccine for everyone on Earth is less than 1 percent of the projected cost of COVID-19 to the global economy. The economic case for requiring pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine knowledge free of patents so that production can be scaled up as fast as possible could not be clearer, the agency said.

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