Worsening inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – Statement by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 28, 2021 – World

48th session of the Human Rights Council

Vice-Chairman of the Board,
Distinguished panelists,
Colleagues and friends,

The scale and scope of the inequalities that have been created and exacerbated by COVID-19 are truly shocking – although to many it is not surprising.

Gaps in the respect and protection of human rights have undermined the resilience of individuals and states, making them extremely vulnerable to this global medical, economic and social shock.

The human rights scars of this pandemic are deep – and they are getting worse and worse.

Extreme poverty and hunger are on the rise. COVID-19 led to the first increase in extreme poverty in two decades: 119 to 124 million more people were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, and the number of people living in food insecurity increased by 318 million, according to the FAO – rising to an unprecedented 2.38 billion people.

Vital gains are being reversed, including for women’s equality and the rights of many ethnic and religious minority communities and indigenous peoples.

The cracks in the social fabric of our societies are widening.

And the huge gaps between rich and poor countries are becoming more and more hopeless and deadly.

We must learn the lessons of COVID-19. I welcome this debate on the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, but I must stress that it must be more than a debate: it must lead to powerful action.


The glaring inequalities within and between our countries have shaped the course of the pandemic, directing its impacts to those least protected from harm.

When economic and fiscal policies ignore the needs and rights of those who are marginalized, basic rights – such as justice, quality education, decent housing and decent work – are neglected. Efforts to ensure equality for all are undermined by chronic underinvestment in public services and efforts to promote non-discrimination. And social cohesion and hope are becoming the rarest goods of all.

We can and must do better. States are committed to defending and advancing human rights, including through ratifying human rights treaties and adopting the 2030 Agenda. The pandemic has revealed many failures to meet these commitments – and it demonstrated the terrible economic, social, human and conflict-related effects of these failures.

So, for me, the first lesson from COVID-19 is that integrating human rights into all decision-making processes makes us safer and stronger. They are not only nice to have – they are a prerequisite for building inclusive, stable and sustainable economies and societies. We must ensure that states’ economic recovery plans are built on a human rights foundation and in meaningful consultation with civil society. In addition, responsible business conduct must be an integral part of better reconstruction.

Steps must be taken to uphold universal health care, universal social protections and other basic rights to protect societies from harm and make all communities more resilient.

We need measures that advance the right of everyone to participate fully in public affairs; measures that ensure the widest possible space for civil liberties; and policies that dismantle and eradicate all forms of discrimination create more cohesive communities, which benefit from everyone’s full contribution.

Second lesson: we need joint action. To act effectively, states must act together, in solidarity, to equitably distribute vaccines and help each other fight against the impacts of COVID-19.

Today, hospitals in some areas have all but collapsed, with patients unable to find the care they need and oxygen almost completely unavailable. A vaccine inequity crisis continues to drive deeper divisions at the heart of the international community.

Just as pre-existing inequalities have made states and communities vulnerable to contagion, and just as pre-existing failures to ensure social protections have exposed people to the worst impact of the socio-economic devastation of the pandemic, so too has inequality. access to vaccines creates setbacks for development and human rights around the world – with potentially massive and lasting consequences.

We need to act together because it’s right to do it – and because it’s in our best interests to do it.

Universal access to COVID-19 vaccines will curb viral mutations, helping to protect everyone from the possibility that a new mutation will manage to overcome the protective effect of the vaccine.

Universal recovery from COVID will bring the world closer to achieving Agenda 2030 – for the benefit of all, in rich and poor countries alike.

The UN advocates leaving no one behind – helping all states transform the economic, political and social paradigms that have fueled this lack of resilience. My office will continue to work to maximize the strength of our partnerships across the United Nations system – and far beyond – to ensure that human rights and sustainability are at the heart of efforts to respond to the pandemic. and get over it.

I am sure that our very distinguished panelists will provide a great deal of information on the factors that led to the devastating damage of the pandemic and the steps that can be taken to address them. What is needed now is to act.

Thank you Madam Vice-President.

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