“Some of us will die, some of us will live to suffer…We are poor. We’ve been left here to die.”
These are the words of Zakir Hussain, a homeless Indian man as he lined up outside a shelter soon after New Delhi and other cities went into lockdown during the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak over two years ago.
Zakir is one of the hundreds of millions of the world’s poor and disenfranchised.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the dark underbelly of a reality which the affluent world has, for a long time, chosen not to see or acknowledge.
It has devastated lives, businesses, industries and livelihoods, pushing the poor into an ever-desperate reality. Political leadership has subsequently failed to match effort with commitment, and people like Zakir continue to be left behind.
When world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we all rightly celebrated this momentous milestone. We reaffirmed our commitment to putting people first, to ensuring those who had been relegated to the margins of society would at last have a voice.
We collectively decided we would work towards this supremely ambitious and transformational vision of a world with equitable and universal access to quality education at all levels and to health care and social protection.
What we set out to do by 2030 would be anchored in our hard-won battle not only for the recognition of universal human rights but for the equal esteem of civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights, on the other.
Finally, we were on the right path.
But few of us imagined that, only 5 years from this high point, immense global crisis would visit all of us in the form of COVID-19.
As the contagion galloped across the world in just a few short weeks, we all scrambled to find solutions.
We are still in the throes of this struggle.
What has become clear is that the foundations which should have been an anchor for us have proven to be visibly porous.
The millions of people living in extreme poverty or some form of deprivation can testify to that.
Let’s look at some concrete facts and figures. We know that the pandemic has reversed progress in health and shortened life expectancy. World hunger is on the rise: 2.37 billion people are without food or lack access to a healthy diet. In 2020, 119-124 million people were pushed into poverty.
Startling inequalities lie beneath this global picture. The disparities between regions and countries are nothing short of dramatic, betraying our largely ineffectual efforts at solidarity and cooperation and our inadequate concern one for another.
The vast majority of vaccine doses for instance have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries and, as usual, it is the world’s poor and most vulnerable with the least access.
So, why this gaping chasm between our values and the experience of so many people? I would like to suggest – and I know I’m not alone in thinking this way – that our failure to protect economic, social and cultural rights must bear a large portion of the blame.
If many of us are honest, the first mention of rights typically conjures up civil and political rights, with economic, social and cultural rights sometimes featuring as an after-thought. In this day and age, despite our understanding that rights are inter-related and interdependent, our experience of human rights does not reflect this understanding.
COVID-19 has forced us to examine the state of our world with fresh eyes. We can cite millions of violations of the rights to health, social protection, housing, water and sanitation and education in real time, down to some very fine details, and the picture is dismal.
My call to you today is to return to our shared values and to stand once again on the ground we so painstakingly gained over many years. We all inhabit the same world, we are connected by the bonds of our shared humanity. The solution to many of our challenges will come from a renewed commitment to solidarity, cooperation and care, one human being for another.