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Protecting Economic and Social Rights During and Post-Covid-19

Questions and Answers on Economic and Social Assistance

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 consequences on economic and social rights stemming from the direct and indirect effects of the illness, people’s cooperation with prevention efforts, and government transmission control policies. Economic projections have already been revised downward for most regions and countries, driven by shocks to both demand and supply and sharp declines in the circulation of goods, services, people, and capital. The economic fallout is estimated to increase the poverty headcount at US$5.50 per day by as many as a half-billion people, eight percent of the world’s population. This would reverse a decade of global progress in reducing poverty, and in some regions the adverse impacts could result in poverty levels similar to those 30 years ago.

The pandemic has starkly exposed economic inequalities, especially in countries with fragile social protection systems, where vulnerable groups bear the brunt of the crisis. The pandemic has also highlighted stark inequalities in wealthier countries with previously better-funded social protection. People living in poverty are more likely to have health complications, live in crowded or poor-quality housing, and lack the resources to stay at home for long periods or follow hygiene recommendations. And low-paid jobs force them to choose between risking their health or losing their income. To remain afloat, people need large, timely, and targeted fiscal support that addresses the multiple axes of inequality and discrimination.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the pandemic’s impact on the economic and social rights of those already in precarious economic situations, who are often more exposed to financial shocks because of socioeconomic inequalities and discrimination.

This question-and-answer document examines how to ensure that the right to an adequate standard of living, among other human rights standards, is at the center of the economic response to Covid-19. It summarizes several types of government responses and provides recommendations for governments and financial institutions for immediate to short-term, medium-term, and longer-term measures to help mitigate human rights risks posed by the pandemic and containment measures.

Section 1: Human rights standards

What is the human right to an adequate standard of living?

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to ensure people’s right to an adequate standard of living, so that everyone enjoys the rights necessary to live in dignity, including the rights to adequate food and nutrition, health and well-being, water and sanitation, and housing. Countries need to ensure equal access to these rights for all, without discrimination on grounds such as gender, race or ethnicity, age, or disability.

The right is set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 25(1):
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It is further developed in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has issued several General Comments explaining the components of this right including the right to adequate housing (General Comments 4 and 7), food (General Comment 12), water (General Comment 15), as well as social security (General Comment 19). Through these General Comments, the Committee elaborates on criteria to fulfill these rights and provides the most comprehensive interpretation of these rights under international law. The right to health has been included in a number of human rights treaties; the main ones are Article 25 UDHR and Article 12 ICECSR.

Are governments obligated to provide social protection or social security?

Yes. Under human rights law, the government is legally obligated to establish social protection systems. The terms social security and social protection are used interchangeably to refer to in-cash or in-kind benefits to provide protection in case of social risks and needs. This duty to provide social protection flows directly from the right to social security, which is articulated in Article 25 of the UDHR, and in Article 9 of the ICESCR. In General Comment No. 19 on the right to social security, the ICESCR spells out the key features of this right and the content of countries’ obligations. The committee says that the right to social security implies two predominant categories of measures: social insurance schemes, for which beneficiaries have contributed financially; and social assistance schemes, non-contributory and typically taxation-funded measures to transfer resources to groups deemed eligible due to vulnerability or deprivation.

Social protection measures secure protection against lack of work-related income – or insufficient income – caused by sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age, death of a family member, or general poverty and social exclusion, among other things. Social protection measures include cash transfer schemes, unemployment or disability benefits, social pensions, food assistance, or subsidized services.

Governments must ensure that social protection is equally available to everyone, and must direct their attention to ensuring universal coverage; reasonable, proportionate, and transparent eligibility criteria; affordability and physical accessibility for beneficiaries; access to information about the provision of benefits; and participation by potential beneficiaries in the administration of these services. Governments need to ensure that there is no discriminatory exclusion from social security and other forms of social protection.

What are countries’ “minimum core obligations”?

UN treaty bodies have set out minimum core obligations on countries, meaning the basic rights they should ensure at all times, for everyone. Within the right to an adequate standard of living, core obligations include ensuring access to the minimum essential nutritionally adequate and safe food and freedom from hunger; to basic shelter, housing, and sanitation; an adequate supply of safe drinking water; and social protection that provides a minimum essential level of benefits.

International law does not require any particular method to ensure everyone has a decent standard of living. Governments may directly provide essentials such as food and water; ensure that essentials are available and affordable; and ensure that everyone has sufficient income for adequate food, housing, and other essentials. This can also be achieved through respecting the related rights of everyone to social security and to wages sufficient to provide a decent living for workers, a so-called living wage.

Countries with limited resources still have an obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living. Even in times of crisis, governments are required to make every effort to meet these obligations with existing resources, including international assistance, and allocate them in the way that maximizes respect for human rights, including taking into account the precarious situation of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals or groups.

What does “progressive realization” mean in this context?

In addition to the minimum core obligations on governments, Article 11(1) of the ICESCR says that they are obliged to ensure for everyone the “continuous improvement of living conditions.” Article 2 of the ICESCR requires governments to use the maximum available resources to achieve progressively the “full realization” of all the rights in the covenant.

How does Covid-19 affect the right to an adequate standard of living?

Covid-19 reinforced the relevance of the right to an adequate standard of living. The impact of the pandemic has been felt particularly hard in situations in which the right had not previously been guaranteed. People without adequate housing are at higher risk of contracting highly communicable diseases like Covid-19 due to their lack of capacity to follow hygiene recommendations or social distancing. People living on the streets, in shelters, or overcrowded informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak. Globally, before the pandemic, over a billion people lived in informal settlements, and an estimated 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world’s population, were homeless.

Similarly, the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation at home, work, or in healthcare settings make preventive measures difficult and could harm fulfillment of the right to an adequate living standard. In some cases, inadequate water and sanitation itself may be a locus for the spread of the disease. About 780 million people around the world lack access to an improved water source – which, by nature of its construction, adequately protects the water from outside contamination, and 2.5 billion lack access to proper sanitation. In metropolitan Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, half the population has undependable access to safe drinking water in their homes. And in Venezuela, handwashing is difficult even for healthcare providers, who often lack soap and disinfectants.


Section 2: Government relief in the immediate, medium, and long term

Human Rights Watch reviewed government responses in about a dozen countries, analyzing aspects such as income support, paid sick leave, food assistance, and other measures. In many cases, governments had taken some important steps, but they have not been sufficient or adequately targeted to support workers who lost jobs or income, especially in the informal economy. Despite massive liquidity injections from central banks and huge financial support packages, many low-income people remain unable to afford necessities such as rent, utilities, and food.

What are some of the concerns with government responses?

In Lebanon, where the spread of Covid-19 compounded the economic crisis that has been roiling the country since 2019, the government announced plans to provide food assistance that did not materialize and financial aid that was significantly delayed and insufficient to provide for families’ basic needs. The economic hardship has reignited widespread protests.

In Uganda, food assistance was planned for 1.5 million people, though more than 9 million Ugandans live in poverty. Assistance has been restricted to specific urban areas, leaving the rest of the country without support. Economic relief has been similarly inadequate in Nigeria, the biggest economy in Africa, where only a small share of those living in poverty have received assistance. An emergency stimulus bill, passed by Nigeria’s House of Representatives but not yet approved by the Senate, would provide support only to employers in the formal sector, though more than 80 percent of the country’s workers are in the informal sector. In Kenya, the government promised about US$2.8 million in emergency funds for those in need. It is unclear who has received this support and what criteria have been used to identify those in need.

In India, the government’s economic package did not sufficiently address the needs of migrant workers and workers in the informal economy, many of them women. In the US, relief packages such as the CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act are largely temporary fixes and exclude informal and undocumented taxpaying workers, while billions of dollars were provided to large companies without sufficient public oversight or restrictions.

How can social and economic assistance in the immediate to short-term protect livelihoods?

There are several policy responses governments could follow to immediately assist all those who need support. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries, hard-hit sectors have a high share of workers in informal employment and with limited access to health services and social protection. Assistance can take the form of expanding coverage and benefits in existing social protection programs and/or introducing new protection to those not sufficiently covered by existing programs, which should be developed in consultation with a wide range of civil society groups. This could include easing eligibility requirements and expanding unemployment insurance and other social protection programs, employment subsidies, temporary tax breaks and deferrals for low-income households, and credit guarantees.

Social and economic assistance should be directed toward those at greatest economic risk due to Covid-19. This support should include informal and undocumented workers, including domestic workers, migrant farmworkers, street vendors, and sex workers, a large proportion of whom are women, people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants. Informal and undocumented workers are most at risk of falling into poverty and it is important to protect their livelihoods. Their exclusion from social protections often violates their right to social security enshrined in international human rights law.

Plans to reach vulnerable groups should be developed in consultation with civil society groups, including community-based organizations, with experience serving diverse groups of people living in poverty. Government should also clearly communicate its economic relief plans to the public and clarify eligibility, timelines, and procedures.

What should governments do to protect people from losing their homes and other basic services?

Governments need to ensure that people do not lose access to adequate housing and implement measures, such as legislative, administrative, policy, or spending priorities, to prevent homelessness, especially for those who are economically and socially at-risk. These can include direct financial assistance for or 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 inability to pay and debt collection. Suspension or grace periods should include reasonable measures to ensure that people can pay accumulated outstanding balances.

Governments could also delay or cancel for a given time period taxes or contributions that negatively affect people’s rights, and use tax cuts and subsidies for, or direct provision of, basic commodities such as food that are affected by price increases.

Countries should also consider supporting those facing accumulated debt, who otherwise would have to give up essential services because they have lost their jobs, have to stop work because of illness, or see their paychecks cut, and are struggling to pay mortgages and other loans, and utility and medical bills. Countries should also consider restricting negative credit reporting during the pandemic and for a period of time after. Negative credit reports can follow and affect an individual’s ability to get credit, jobs, and housing for many years.

What about the accessibility and affordability of care?

Governments should ensure that testing and any treatment or vaccines developed for Covid-19 are affordable and accessible to everyone, while also ensuring that hospitals and healthcare providers have the resources needed to provide care. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of investment in health makes it difficult to monitor new cases and to provide sufficient testing and treatment. But even in countries with sufficient resources, people may delay or not seek treatment if services are not affordable. In the United States, more than 137 million people faced financial hardship because of their medical bills even before the pandemic, and medical issues contribute to two-thirds of bankruptcies. The right to the highest attainable standard of health includes affordable care and access to health facilities for all on an equal basis to prevent, treat, and control epidemic diseases.

Other forms of essential health care, including sexual and reproductive health care, also need to continue and remain physically and financially accessible throughout the pandemic. In Uganda, the combined ban on public and private transport and a scarcity of public ambulances cost the lives of several women in labor. Many older people and people with disabilities rely on uninterrupted home and community services and support. Public agencies, community organizations, healthcare providers, and other essential service providers need to be able to continue performing essential functions to meet their needs. Government strategies should minimize disruption in services and develop contingent sources for comparable services. Disruption of community-based services can result in the institutionalization of persons with disabilities and older people, which can lead to negative health impacts.

How should governments provide assistance to businesses?

Providing businesses with financial support to weather the economic impacts of the crisis is important. And tying financial support to businesses with protection for workers can reduce unemployment and sudden losses of income, which can help sustain an adequate standard of living for workers.

Assistance should go to both formal and informal businesses, especially people who work on their own, many of them women and people with disabilities, and small and medium size enterprises.

Meaningful oversight is needed to ensure that funds are not misspent and are appropriately used to protect workers. Governments can require businesses that receive financial support to maintain payroll and other commitments to workers, including sub-contracted workers, and where labor rights protections are lacking, ensure that every worker has paid sick and family leave, occupational health and safety, and where applicable, childcare, health insurance, and other protection measures.

Bailouts could be conditional on firms paying their taxes, keeping workers on their payroll, paying them a living wage and continuing benefits like health insurance in countries where that is a key employment benefit, and providing safe workplaces and personal protective equipment as recommended.

What steps should governments take to ensure transparency, oversight, and accountability of relief funds?

Emergency funding is especially vulnerable to corruption and misuse because of the urgency and scale of government spending, and the underlying emergency situation can overwhelm or hinder oversight, allowing powerful actors to take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit. To prevent corruption or misuse, governments should restrict who may benefit from funds to avoid conflicts of interest, ensure that all spending is transparent, appoint independent auditors to oversee spending decisions, and hold people accountable where appropriate.

Conflict-of-interest restrictions should prevent senior government officials, or their close relatives, from personally profiting from loans, grants, or public contracts channeled through companies in which they have significant stakes. Governments should make public the amount they spend on various programs, and major beneficiaries of funds. They should also publish procurement processes, including the names of companies awarded public contracts and their beneficial owners. With rare exceptions, all procurement processes should be competitive and final delivery of goods should be verified.

Governments should appoint independent auditors or inspectors general to oversee emergency funding and their reports should be made public. All credible evidence of corruption or misuse should be promptly investigated, and those found responsible should be held accountable.

What should governments do in the medium- and long-term?

The pandemic has exposed structural social and economic inequalities and vast holes in social protection. While immediate support is important, medium- and long-term targeted support will be needed. As countries are starting to ease lockdown restrictions and let moratoriums protecting low-income tenants and homeowners lapse, economic recovery that benefits everyone will depend on improved social protection and broad-based fiscal support. This includes public investment in health care, social protection, and infrastructure. Recovery plans should take into account ways in which some groups have suffered more than others during the pandemic and work to ensure that economic recovery seeks to correct the inequities that led to disparities in the first place. The following aspects are particularly important:

  • Set up more expansive and inclusive social protection measures ensuring everyone’s right to social security. Entitlement to social protection is often conditional on participation in the formal labor market, putting it beyond some people’s reach. Countries have temporarily extended social protection to varying degrees and have taken first steps toward universal coverage.

In the United States for example, unemployment benefits were extended to many workers previously ineligible for such protections, including those working in the “gig” economy or people who provide home care or domestic work. For the first four months of the pandemic, benefits were made more generous, so that those who lost work received $600 per week in addition to any amount to which they are eligible under state law.

In the Philippines, conditions for access to cash transfers have been waived and new programs have been introduced, which quadrupled social protection coverage from pre-Covid-19 levels.

Making some of these temporary lifelines permanent can provide better financial security for people during future economic uncertainty.

Social and economic support, including childcare and paid sick and family leave, should reach all essential workers as part of medium- to long-term measures and recovery. Such support is especially necessary to ensure the health and well-being of essential workers.

  • Spend on protecting economic rights instead of abusive austerity. Supporting the recovery with fiscal tools while managing higher government debt levels is a delicate balancing act. The pandemic and its economic fallout, along with policy responses, have contributed to a major increase in fiscal deficits and government debt ratios. As countries ease restrictions and enter the recovery phase, they should consider progressive taxation and strengthen public institutions rather than pursuing austerity measures.  

The experiences of various countries following the 2008 financial crisis have shown that many austerity policies entrenched inequalities and harmed fulfillment of an adequate standard of living. The economically vulnerable were hit the hardest as social protection systems were weakened, jeopardizing a country’s ability to adequately respond to human rights obligations. In the UK, researchers have related austerity to an increase in homelessness, the number of people in poverty, and food insecurity. Countries should learn from these results, with progressive public spending on health and social protection replacing austerity policies.

Some countries have introduced temporary measures to find housing for those who are homeless or lack adequate housing. These have been very successful but risk being reversed. As governments end emergency measures and let moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures lapse, they should create programs to guarantee everyone’s right to adequate housing, address and prevent homelessness, and protect people from unfair evictions.

  • Improve tax collection and consider progressive taxes. To ensure adequate funding for progressive spending, governments should improve tax enforcement and collection practices. Countries should review whether rates are equitable and appropriate to generate necessary resources to assess whether they should reinstate or impose new progressive taxes. Property owners or landlords who have waived rent or entered rent agreements in which the landlord bears the economic brunt could be considered tax exempt for the time of the waiver or special rental agreement.
  • Ensure equitable access to re-entry to employment. After the 2008 financial crisis, most of the jobs that were lost permanently were low-income jobs. Older workers, especially older women and minorities, were least likely to be rehired. Governments should develop strategies to ensure full employment and wage growth so that low-income workers are not disproportionally harmed in the long run. This could be done via public employment programs specifically for sectors with unemployment rates that are substantially higher than the average and with large concentrations of low-income workers.
  • Enshrine the right to an adequate standard of living in law. Countries need to give an effective remedy to those denied an adequate standard of living. A key element of the right is ensuring that everyone has sufficient income to be able to afford an adequate standard of living. This can be done through various routes, including: i) social security, ii) living wage, or iii) guaranteed minimum income.


Section 3: International assistance

How are international financial institutions supporting countries to meet their human rights obligations?

International assistance is crucial for protecting livelihoods and economies, especially in countries with fewer resources. The World Bank Group has provided a US$14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries to respond quickly to Covid-19. The package includes support for public health preparedness, as well as support to private companies struggling with disruptions in supply chains. The World Bank Group noted that it “is prepared to deploy up to US$160 billion over the next 15 months to support Covid-19 measures that will help countries respond to immediate health consequences of the pandemic and bolster economic recovery.”

Other financial institutions providing development assistance, both multilateral and bilateral, have committed over US$90 billion in response to the pandemic. In addition to providing policy advice and technical assistance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has doubled its emergency fund to meet expected demand of about US$100 billion. Over 100 countries have already requested emergency assistance from the IMF, the highest number in its 75-year history. Unlike the Fund’s standard programs, emergency funds are generally disbursed in lump sums, with limited, if any, transparency, conditions, or reviews. The IMF is also providing a six-month debt service relief to 25 of the “poorest and most vulnerable countries,” to help them utilize their resources for medical and other relief efforts.

While the rapid response by international financial institutions is important, the human rights implications of the financial assistance are not clear. There are gaps in transparency and accountability requirements. In many cases financial support is going to countries with poor human rights records. This raises concern that the financial assistance provided will not reach those most in need.

What should international financial institutions do to ensure that assistance reaches those in need?

Funding and support from international financial institutions for the Covid-19 response and during the economic recovery period should respect human rights and should lead to opportunities for all, especially for those who are most in need and at-risk. Their funds should support socioeconomic programs like social protection floors, minimum basic incomes, adequate housing protections, and fiscal policies that address rising poverty and inequality and should be targeted to previously marginalized groups, including women. They should ensure that Covid-19 related responses do not redirect resources from financial commitments and support that had been earmarked for “vulnerable” populations prior to the pandemic.

As countries enter the recovery phase, international financial institutions should depart from the dogmas of austerity and instead encourage public spending in health and social protection to safeguard the rights of those most at risk, thus ensuring greater societal resilience in the event of a second wave of Covid-19, or a future public health crisis. They should prioritize strengthening public institutions to support services that promote health and universal access to essential services.

What should international financial institutions do to increase oversight and uphold safeguards, transparency, and accountability?

To reach those most in need and keep the country’s elite from taking the money, international financial institutions should publish all information related to support programs as soon as possible. They should also make clear both in private meetings with governments, and through high-level public statements, that they will only support governments that demonstrate continued commitment to good governance.

Governments should make all information about how emergency relief funds are spent available to internal auditors and to independent auditors. Priority should be given to critical areas such as health, public procurement, infrastructure, and social security expenditures.

Human Rights Watch is a member of the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, a global coalition of 98 social movements, grassroots groups, and civil society organizations advocating nationally and internationally for development that respects human rights and is community-led. Together with our coalition partners, we have urged international financial institutions to:

  1. uphold human rights standards, including through enforcement of social and environmental safeguards;
  2. adopt heightened transparency and accountability standards, with concerted effort to provide updates to fill existing gaps in information on an ongoing basis, and timely translations of project documents into national and local languages of affected communities;
  3. assess anticipated human rights risks and document heightened environmental, social, inequality, and violence risks in countries’ management plans during the Covid-19 pandemic;
  4. indicate clearly and systematically which new projects are Covid-19 crisis related and also when existing projects are being repurposed to respond to the pandemic and its impacts; and
  5. monitor for corrupt practices at a level commensurate with the heightened risk of misuse and misappropriation of funds in crises.

Human Rights Watch and 43 other organizations also wrote to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), urging it to take a series of steps to help its clients avoid, minimize, or revisit retrenchment decisions and to align with IFC Performance Standards and international labor and human rights standards. The organizations urged the IFC to build upon its interim advice with binding steps and monitoring to promote paid sick and family leave, job protection, employer-provided childcare and health care, occupational health and safety, and nondiscriminatory retrenchment, in the event this is needed.

The organizations also urged the IFC to follow and build on the good practice of the World Bank and create a dedicated website to publish information about all clients receiving IFC Covid-19 response financing either directly or through financial intermediaries, and those clients that are substantially revising their projects in response to Covid-19.

Human Rights Watch and nearly 100 other human rights and anti-corruption organizations have urged the IMF to mitigate risks such as hidden contracts, overpricing, and collusion, governments should be provided with support and commit, at a minimum, to:

  1. publish all public contracts;
  2. use open and competitive bidding, and strictly limit the use of emergency non-competitive processes;
  3. publish the names and beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts; and
  4. empower anti-monopoly agencies, where they exist, to monitor market conditions in critical sectors to avoid collusion or overpricing.


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