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Daily wage laborers and people without homes wait to receive free food during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 in New Delhi, India, April 28, 2020. © 2020 Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have long lasting economic and social impacts and disproportionally harm those who were already economically or socially vulnerable before the crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a question-and-answer document released today. Human rights should be at the center of governments’ short, medium, and long-term economic responses to the crisis to prevent further deepening profound inequalities.

The document, “Protecting Economic and Social Rights During and Post-Covid-19: Questions and Answers on Economic and Social Assistance”, says that under international law, governments are required to uphold the right to an adequate standard of living, among other human rights standards, and that this requirement should be at the center of the economic response to Covid-19. Human Rights Watch examined the ways that governments have reacted to the pandemic. Based on that analysis, the document provides recommendations and guidelines for governments and financial institutions to stop, prevent, and mitigate the human rights impacts and risks posed by the economic implications of the pandemic and containment measures.

“Governments have taken important steps to mitigate the economic fallout, but many have not sufficiently or adequately protected those who are most at risk,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite massive relief programs, many people experience poverty or remain unable to afford necessities, and some groups have been excluded from support altogether.”

Assistance should cover especially those placed at greatest economic and social risk due to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said. But some countries have adopted policies that provide assistance exclusively to certain groups, tying aid to specific geographic areas, an individual’s immigration status, or participation in the formal economy. Such practices have left many people, a large share them women, with limited access to health services and social protection, contributing to their risk of falling into poverty. 

Human Rights Watch puts forward recommendations for economic and social assistance in the short-, medium-, and long-term. In the short-term, support can take the form of expanding existing or introducing new social protection programs, deferral of rental and mortgage payments, moratoriums on evictions due to arrears, rental stabilization, or reduction measures, and suspending utility costs and cut-offs for non-payment and debt collection. Governments should also take steps to make testing and treatment or vaccines developed for Covid-19 affordable and accessible to everyone.

In the medium- to longer-term, governments should spend more on protecting economic and social rights, instead of engaging in abusive austerity. This could take the form of making some of the immediate support programs permanent and creating stronger social protection systems that reach universal coverage.

While financial support to the private sector is critical to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic, Human Rights Watch urges including provisions for oversight to ensure that funds are not misspent. Emergency funding is especially vulnerable to corruption and misuse because of the urgency and scale of government spending. The underlying emergency can overwhelm or hinder oversight systems, allowing powerful actors to take advantage of the crisis for their benefit instead of supporting workers.

Similarly, funding and support from international financial institutions like the World Bank Group and the IMF – critical for protecting livelihoods and economies in countries with few resources – should ensure transparency and accountability in their emergency response. Financial support is going to countries with poor human rights records, corporations, and banks, raising concerns that the financial assistance provided will not reach those most in need.

Addressing the vast economic inequalities that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated requires longer-term investments in public health care, social protection, and infrastructure, Human Rights Watch said. Such recovery plans should take into account the ways in which some groups have suffered more harm than others during the pandemic, prioritizing economic recovery and correcting inequities that led to disparities in the first place. 

“There is a huge risk that millions of people will fall into poverty, and face hunger and permanent job loss,” Simet said. “Unless governments provide effective long-term economic and social assistance, the pandemic threatens to increase and entrench economic inequality even further.” 

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