COVID-19: a wake-up call for economic and social rights!

COVID19 Newsletter, Economic & Social Rights

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In only a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore what activists, social workers, carers, human rights defenders, trade unionists and many others have long denounced: stalled upward mobility; degradation of essential services such as adequate health care and social security; and a steep increase in inequalities.

In other words, the COVID-19 reality exposes the hefty roll back on economic and social rights that has been happening over the last decade on both sides of the Mediterranean. While some countries have better safeguarded their population’s social and economic rights than others, there is a myriad of evidence for the detrimental impacts of austerity policies and budget cuts to public services. Tax evasion, corruption and a constant search for profit – including in public services – further darken the picture.

Societies’ social and economic resilience has been severely undermined. The hit from COVID-19 has therefore been even more violent in a range of areas:

  • Some health care services are now so underfunded that they are on the verge of collapse. This is true both in MENA countries, where the total health expenditure per capita is significantly below the global average, but also in some European countries such as Greece.
  • Millions of people have seen their source of income dry up. Even worse, many cannot fall back on social security, unemployment support or paid sick leave due to the erosion of workers’ rights and trade unions in recent years. For example, in the MENA region, where informal employment represents 6368% of employment, many are struggling to make ends meet. Overall, the first month of the crisis saw a drop of around 60% in the income of informal workers globally. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Europe’s unemployment rate (currently at 7.4%) will pass the 10 % mark by December 2020, with Southern European countries being disproportionately affected (up to 22.3% in Greece and 20.8% in Spain).
  • Income inequality continues to grow across the Euro-Mediterranean region, with the Middle East being one of, if not the most unequal region in the world. COVID-19 has laid bare existing inequalities in our societies. For instance, COVID-19 hits in particular lone mothers with caring responsibilities, exposing them even more to the virus while already facing significant financial constraints. Women make up around 70% of health workers globally and provide 75% of unpaid care work. Women also tend to be employed in the lowest-paid and insecure jobs. Undocumented migrants also slip through social safety nets. Across the Euro-Mediterranean region, migrant workers are much more likely to work in precarious conditions. Their right to stay in the country often depends on their job. Many do not qualify for any social protection, paid sick leave or unemployment benefits, leaving them exceptionally vulnerable. Some governments have removed barriers to accessing healthcare for undocumented people and/or regularise them, as did Portugal, but these measures remain rare and short-term across the region.
  • The pandemic also leads to a sharp increase in poverty rates. The ILO predicts the loss of 12 million full-time jobs in Europe in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. In Italy, almost half of all workers have suffered a loss of income. Increased unemployment and insecure employment will worsen the living conditions of those living in, or at risk of, poverty. According to UN estimates, an additional 3 million people will be pushed into poverty in the Arab region alone due to the pandemic. In Lebanon, protests are already resuming to denounce rising living costs and inequalities. In Turkey, food prices have increased by nearly 13% in 12 months.

These issues are only the tip of the iceberg. The social and economic distress that will follow this crisis will be immense. The answer cannot be a repeat of past mistakes. Restarting the economy cannot be done through another round of austerity. This would only apply more pressure to those already squeezed by the pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recently highlighted the critical role of the State in investing in public health and social protection systems. States need to live up to their obligations to guarantee people’s economic and social rights.

New austerity measures do not, will not and cannot work. What we need is a new approach that puts human, economic and social rights at the centre of policymaking. At EU level, one example could be to step up the work on a minimum income that allows, all across the EU, for an adequate standard of living. It will also be key to fully implement the European Pillar of Social Rights in order to make social rights a reality. Moreover, the EU should carefully assess the human rights impacts of economic reforms it encourages, also through its foreign, development and trade policy, in Southern Mediterranean countries.

Main feature by Marion Sandner, Economic and Social Rights Programme Officer