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COVID-19 and Minorities: A Test for Our Humanity

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By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director at Minority Rights Group International

The hold of the pandemic over people and economies across the world highlights two clear messages.

First, while the virus is potent, its ability to kill is weaponised by poor governance, yielding vastly different outcomes in similar circumstances. Egalitarian societies with the best candidate to govern (many women led) have fared better; societies where ‘strongmen’ seized power based on a rhetoric of fear, find themselves out of their depth in tackling issues that require skill and wisdom.

Second, how you experience the virus remains an accident of birth. While proximity to power and wealth is no guarantee against contagion, the flow of information, remedies and facilities generate different outcomes than for those far from sites of power.

We know the virus will kill many, disproportionally affecting the vulnerable, and societies have been alert to this, ensuring extra protection for the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions.

But this is not the only kind of vulnerability that exists.

The last few years have seen our political space filled with the politics of hate. The formula is straightforward: find someone different, turn the majority against them, claim the levers of power, access the wealth beyond.

Hate mongers are not new – they blight our goriest history pages. Their traction now is driven by two interrelated challenges: exceeding planetary boundaries creating grave existential uncertainties while increasing mechanization and depriving people of livelihoods. The result is an angry mass unsure of how to survive, easily goaded into hate by powerful interests that generate narratives that speak to their anger and control their actions.

If these interests had solutions to climate change and job creation, the hate may be deemed a necessary, if unsavoury collateral. But they seek control for its own sake, making the most of the ‘good times’ while they last, not investing in long-term visions seeking to reorient societies to combat new realities.

This politics of hate, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ stands blatantly exposed by Coronavirus.

Entrenched ossified structural discrimination has kept certain communities within our societies beyond the reach of rights. They may not have shelters to stay home in; may not be able to access life-saving information to prevent spread; may not live in places where social distancing is possible and often live in subsistence conditions where lock-downs will kill them from hunger before the virus.

If exposed to contagion, they face another set of problems: lack of facilities for isolation; desperate imperatives to keep working to feed themselves and dependents; knowledge they will be sent to the back of the queue (if let into it at all) as overstretched health systems ‘prioritize’ ‘us’ over ‘them’ – all driven by hate that has become endemic to societies, permeating mass consciousness.

At Minority Rights Group we have been working hard since the commencement of the pandemic. Our 160 partners globally represent the form of vulnerability I am referring to. They are out of preventative messaging loops due to media reach or language barriers, live in conditions that will not secure containment, are dependent on eking out subsistence from collapsing economies, and are terrified about relying on health systems that will discriminate against them.

Our activists around the world, who in ‘normal times’ see themselves fighting for system change to ensure the rights and dignity of everyone, irrespective of the accident of their birth, are now striving to pivot programmes to safeguard against the spread of the virus to vulnerable communities. But there is room for many more to step in and help in generating the collaborative approach our governments seem incapable of articulating.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it right when he said this virus was a test of our humanity. Coming through it while leaving no one behind is the only route to success, even if this goes against the grain of recent hate politics.

The agenda for action is clear

Those leading the health response including the WHO need to listen to minority experiences in designing appropriate preventative guidance. Telling communities in cramped environments to ‘socially distance’ is akin to sending out advice about restricting use of private swimming pools: irrelevant if you do not have one. Generating bespoke guidance incorporating national health authorities, ensuring they administer services without prejudice and cater to different needs, is key to the salience of any advice, utility and adherence, but also in mitigation and eradication efforts. Organisations such as the World Food Programme and the Red Cross/Red Crescent need to be locate vulnerable groups and ensure they feature in their humanitarian efforts.

Governments need to safeguard against stigmatization, pay heed to vulnerability in directing health authorities and emergency services to their side, and ensure that health coverage is not dependent on individual status. For many this is a material change from the usual blame game, the hollowness of which emphasizes the poverty of skill. Make no mistake, the death toll caused by this virus will come down to governance decisions. If left festering among scapegoated vulnerable communities, its presence will be prolonged creating systemic economic and social breakdown.

It is equally imperative to sensitise the public to document discrimination against vulnerable groups, so organisations can react swiftly, and spread word about this form of vulnerability so we can collectively protect communities in the short term and become conscious of how steadily we have been programmed to fail this test of humanity.

Beyond COVID-19 we must make our voices count in building inclusive societies where narrow identity confines will not determine our collective achievements, and where hate politics is identified as an anachronistic ideology that will not serve us in our collective hour of need when faced with these kinds of crises.

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This article was originally published at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

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