A few of the questions that the panel discussed were:
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve, how have social and economic inequalities contributed to its intractability? Have social and economic inequalities prolonged the pandemic? What should governments and policymakers do to better address the vulnerability of the most marginalised groups affected by Covid-19? How can we better prepare these groups before the next pandemic and insure government accountability? By way of introductory words, our moderator Martha also mentioned how the interpretation of the inequality concept can shift.
Throughout the discussions, several kinds of inequality have been addressed.
Hope Metcalf spoke about her research on prisons – where spatial inequalities mean that close contacts cannot be avoided even during a pandemic. What is more, some prison administrators may even be using the pandemic to limit people’s rights.
“From the conversations with people inside prisons in particular but also with people who have experienced incarceration, they said it has to be so much bigger than that, it has to be structural.”
In order to combat these injustices, Hope Metcalf talked about her work together with grassroots activists, for example leading a campaign against solitary confinement throughout the last year. She especially emphasised the importance of involving the prisoners in these discussions and hearing their concerns.
As the title of this webinar indicates, a recurring thought in these discussions was also the mutual reinforcement between vulnerabilities and inequalities.
Covid-19 increasing the vulnerability of women
Janine Moussa worked on how Covid-19 exacerbated the isolation and vulnerability of women, as they are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Some scattered initiatives such as online helplines have been set up as an attempt to tackle this issue. But, being confined to their homes, women may have difficulties getting help through these online services if they are living together with their abuser. Further, as Janine Moussa pointed out, most women globally do not have access to a smartphone or even to the internet. This is yet another kind of inequality; digital inequality.
The importance of a human rights model
As another common theme the panelists discussed, in their respective fields of research, the importance of structural changes. The core argument of Gerard Quinn’s research was that the response to Covid-19 was based on a medical model of disability, instead of a human rights model that would elevate the dignity and inclusion of persons with disabilities. He emphasised how, unless there is a system transformation, law reforms are going to have very little impact.
The recognition of systemic racism in international human right law standards
In her research, Elina Castillo Jimenéz focused on the question whether, within international human right law standards, there was a recognition of systemic racism as a violation of human rights. Her take on this question was that, despite the existence of system binding tools that address racism, it seems that these instruments do not necessarily support an approach that considers the systems that sustain and cause racial discrimination. This importance of structural changes was also discussed regarding the treatment of prisoners and the issue of domestic abuse.
“Even though there are system binding tools within international human rights law that address racial discrimination and recognize it as a violation of human rights, it seems that these do not necessarily support an approach that takes into account (…) the systems that cause and sustain racial discrimination.”
Overall, the discussions highlighted policy defaults in dealing with public health emergencies. Even when attempting to address the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, the voices of vulnerable groups, whether it be prisoners, persons with disabilities, women or racial minorities, were often not heard enough.
However, we have also seen that Covid-19 catalysed certain opportunities for change, as pre-existing vulnerabilities and the need for systemic transformation were made visible due to the crisis.