Press Release

IACHR and OSRESCER Urge States to Provide Effective Protection for People Living in Poverty and Extreme Poverty in the Americas during the COVID-19 Pandemic

2 de junio de 2020

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of the Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit on the COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis (SACROI COVID-19), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Economic Rights (OSRESCER) expressed their extreme concern over the substantial increase in poverty and extreme poverty in the Americas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of this. They are also extremely concerned by the severe negative impacts suffered by people in this situation in the process of attaining minimum levels of protection for their human rights, especially their economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights (ESCERs). The IACHR and the OSRESCER expressed their deep regret over the increasingly drastic conditions that these groups are currently being forced to endure to reach minimum levels of subsistence and stressed that this critical situation will become exponentially worse if states do not immediately implement clear policies and decisions to guarantee ESCERs.

The Americas are the most unequal region on the planet, riven by deep social divides, and where poverty and extreme poverty are problems that affect all states in the region. The IACHR and the OSRESCER noted with great concern how ECLAC has projected that the number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean living in poverty will increase by almost 30 million in 2020, while another 16 million will enter into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, which will have a particularly detrimental effect on women. ECLAC predicts the unemployment rate will increase significantly, reaching 37.7 million people, in a subregion in which informal employment is one of the main sources of economic income, social programs are insufficient, and corruption is endemic. The FAO has also warned of the serious risks the pandemic is posing to the right to food and the fight against hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In this regard, the IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the Americas has not only caused a serious health emergency in which thousands of people have lost their lives and more than a million have suffered health problems, it has also triggered extreme economic and social consequences, the most noteworthy of which are the negative impacts it is having on access to decent employment, the reduction of inequality, and the fight against poverty and hunger. In the view of the IACHR and the OSRESCER, these consequences are having a totally disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and poorest social groups, including migrants, female workers with precarious jobs, the homeless, and indigenous peoples, among others, who have been desperately trying to find ways to subsist in the absence of state policies and measures to adequately protect them.

The current context has highlighted existing asymmetries in access to health systems in the region, which are having a particularly marked impact on the poor. Given the notable absence of investment in public health, the pandemic has drawn attention to the existing shortfalls in health systems when it comes to serving people living in poverty and guaranteeing their rights to life and health by ensuring that sufficient health facilities, goods, and services are available.

In this regard, states in the region must make the human right to health the guiding principle of their health systems and must prioritize this right by providing effective protection for it, especially for people living in poverty or otherwise precarious conditions. In the view of the IACHR and the OSRESCER, the persistent gaps in the coverage and quality of health services and the high cost of these have made it even more imperative for states to comply with their obligations in this area. They stressed how important it is for states to ensure that sufficient emergency funds are available for public health, including for addressing the basic social factors underlying this; to prioritize the financing of public health in their general budgets; and to move toward guaranteeing universal access to this right, including the right to mental health. The OSRESCER noted that states must also ensure that availability, accessibility, cultural acceptability, and quality are all guaranteed as part of the right to health.

Individuals and families who are living in poverty are at high risk of losing their sources of employment or of experiencing a drastic decrease or loss of the economic income they need to survive due to social distancing measures, isolation, and lockdown policies that result in the closure or limitation of various kinds of economic activity. When such measures do not include a human rights focus, not only do they tragically expose the severe, complex situations in which these populations find themselves, they also increase their risk of catching COVID-19 and acquiring other health problems because they are forced to violate the measures in question to be able to access food and water. In short, the pandemic is putting disproportionate, unjust, and often unmanageable burdens on these populations, who are forced every day to decide between upholding social distancing measures or ignoring these to be able to survive.

In this context, the IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that indigenous and campesino communities have been exposed to additional risks during the COVID-19 pandemic due to structural weaknesses in their access to land and food, which are compounded by the low economic incomes they tend to obtain for their work. Women, LGBTI people, migrants, and people of African descent, especially those living in poverty or with limited resources, are more likely to lose their jobs, experience worse labor conditions, and suffer abuse and labor violations. It is also clear that there is a high risk of a sustained increase in child labor within the poorest families in an attempt to access means of subsistence. There is a clear need for guarantees for the rights of informal or particularly vulnerable workers, such as domestic workers, sex workers, or those who are self-employed in precarious conditions.

Given these circumstances, states need to comply effectively with their obligations to respect and guarantee the right to work, including fair and equitable conditions for exercising this, as well as the rights to adequate food and social security. To achieve this, states urgently need to adopt protective measures including direct cash transfers; providing food to the specific populations; protecting employment and wages, especially those of the most vulnerable sectors of the population; ensuring that trade unions and other collectives are involved in designing and implementing containment and social distancing strategies; implementing accessible, nondiscriminatory unemployment insurance; identifying and responding to populations and areas experiencing food insecurity; and generating social awareness-raising campaigns that foster solidarity and combat aporophobia. Efforts must also be increased to guarantee progressive access to minimum social protection, including the possibility of a basic income, which would help people access dignified living conditions and overcome economic uncertainty. Progress also needs to be made toward recognizing and protecting the human right to care by implementing systems that ensure that people who lack economic resources still receive the assistance and protection they need to cope with old age, disability, or illness, while also taking into account the rights and value of caregivers, most of whom are women.

Likewise, widespread closures of the physical facilities of schools, universities, and training centers to contain the spread of COVID-19 has had significant negative effects on the right to education, especially among children and teenagers who are living in poverty and the most disadvantaged and marginalized sectors of society. Given that the effective implementation of the right to education is one of the best solutions for overcoming poverty and inequality and that the latter are, in turn, two of the greatest obstacles to exercising this right, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the huge disparities that exist in this area, including the risks relating to access to food that school-age children receive at educational establishments.

Despite states’ efforts to use digital tools and mass media to provide education services at this time, people living in poverty are being seriously affected by the absence of guarantees for distance learning, the overlooking of the different needs of rural and urban populations, the exclusion of certain languages, the unavailability of technological devices for education, lack of internet access or shortfalls in teacher training and use of online tools and methodologies. At the same time, the lack of state regulation and oversight of private educational institutions from a human rights perspective poses increased risks to the population’s enjoyment of the right to education during the pandemic.

The pandemic has also highlighted the extreme difficulties faced by people living in poverty, particularly those who are living on the street or who do not have access to accommodation of sufficiently high quality to enable them to exercise and enjoy their rights to housing, a healthy environment, drinking water, and sanitation. The IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that the effectiveness of any preventive health measures implemented in the Americas will depend on social factors that shape the full enjoyment of the right to health. This includes factors such as air, soil, and water quality, given that the most polluted areas in the continent also tend to be inhabited by people living in poverty or extreme poverty and other groups that have historically been discriminated against. Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 are predicated on the existence of access to housing and appropriate spaces in which people can shelter and comply with social distancing, as well as affordable, continual access to drinking water to prevent health problems and possible risks of contagion.

However, such conditions are far from universal in reality, given that one in every three urban families in Latin America live in low-quality housing. The right to housing is a serious problem throughout the continent: An Inter-American Development Bank study of six countries in the Caribbean found that around 10 million people did not have adequate housing in 2017. The OSRESCER stressed that people without access to adequate housing, especially those living on the streets, are highly vulnerable, heterogeneous groups who are being exposed to even more extreme violations of their human rights than those they usually face as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of an appropriate state response to this. These groups endure sustained, systematic stigmatization, social and institutional abandonment, and criminalization, and their dignity and humanity—the basic, essential, inherent value of every person—are often ignored. The pandemic has exacerbated these circumstances by subjecting these groups to greater acts of violence, stigmatization, and hostile and discriminatory behavior, as well as fewer sources of income and lower chances of survival, as their lives, personal integrity, and health are at greater risk of being affected.

In this context, problems relating to precarious shelter; limited access to drinking water, sanitation, clothing, and basic hygiene measures; overcrowding, segregation, and spatial inequality in cities; and uncertainty around tenancy agreements and high rental costs converge to make these large groups unfairly and disproportionately exposed to the risks the pandemic is posing to human rights. This prompts the need for states to adopt emergency measures to mitigate these risks while taking action through a human rights approach that will allow lasting solutions to be implemented that address the rights to housing, drinking water, and sanitation among people living in poverty or other low-income groups. States must act with particular urgency to prioritize assistance for people living on the street and measures in favor of this group, particularly by providing decent emergency shelter with access to adequate food, drinking water, and basic sanitation to enable them to protect themselves from the effects of the pandemic.

The IACHR and the OSRESCER emphasized that states’ primary responsibility is to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19 to protect health and save as many lives as possible, without discriminating on the grounds of age, and providing special care for older adults and people in situations of human mobility. At the same time, serious, sustainable strategies must be devised to address the more severe effects that the pandemic and its consequences will have on the most disadvantaged and marginalized sectors of society. High rates of inequality in the region, coupled with the increases in poverty and extreme poverty that the pandemic has brought, are putting severe pressure on the region’s social fabric and may jeopardize democratic rule and the rule of law if states do not ensure robust institutional and regulatory protection for ESCERs or if they do not include human rights at the core of the decisions, policies, and measures they implement to address the pandemic.

The IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that the regulatory frameworks and political and economic responses that states implement must be part of transparent, participatory processes that facilitate and promote access to information, accountability, and access to justice, placing the human rights approach at their core. With regard to people living in poverty and extreme poverty, states must facilitate and create relevant channels to enable them to participate effectively in the processes described above, ensuring they have sufficient access to information, inclusion, and empowerment as bearers of rights, particularly ESCERs. Businesses have a key role to play at such times and their conduct should be guided by relevant human rights principles and rules. To achieve this, states must require businesses to respect human rights, monitor them to ensure they do so, and adopt due diligence and accountability processes in response to abuses and negative impacts on the ESCERs people living in poverty of the kind that pandemics and similar health crises often cause.

Despite the real, urgent threats to ESCERs posed by the COVID-19 crisis, the IACHR and the OSRESCER noted that this is also an extraordinary opportunity for states to encourage urgent reforms to close the divides and inequalities in the Americas and focus their responses on ensuring people’s effective enjoyment of ESCERs, without discrimination. They called on all states in the Americas to act to achieve this and noted that they are available to provide support for these efforts and to identify best practices to guarantee that people living in poverty or extreme poverty can enjoy their ESCERs.

In view of this, in addition to the recommendations set out in Resolution 1/2020, the IACHR and the OSRESCER also recommend that states do the following:

1. Ensure that public policies are urgently implemented with the specific aim of protecting the ESCERs of people living in poverty, extreme poverty, and those at risk of joining this group during the pandemic and its aftermath, and to strengthen ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness and scope of these policies and the processes of generating, mobilizing, and adequately distributing economic resources to defend these groups and prevent them from becoming even more vulnerable to violations of their rights. States must pay special attention to ensuring that measures and actions to protect ESCERs reach target populations and are effectively implemented.
2. Expressly include human rights impact assessments in their economic decisions and fiscal policy strategies, ensuring that they focus on securing financing to protect ESCERs and that populations living in poverty or extreme poverty can enjoy these rights, taking women’s historical lack of economic autonomy and their central role in care work particularly into account. Specifically, as a tool for achieving this end, fiscal policies should be fair, progressive, and should guarantee an equitable redistribution of wealth that focuses on implementing human rights.
3. Implement urgent, concrete, transparent measures to comply with states’ obligation to cooperate to safeguard human rights, particularly the ESCERs of people living in poverty or extreme poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Avoid compromising other states’ capacities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the ESCERs of those who are at greatest risk from the crisis, and ensure that their actions as individual states or as part of international institutions do not cause harm outside their territories or prompt transnational violations of these rights.
5. Secure sufficient funding to guarantee the right to health of individuals and groups who are living in poverty and extreme poverty during the pandemic without discrimination, prioritize the financing of public health in their national budgets, and take firm steps to guarantee universal access to health, including mental health.
6. Step up efforts to protect the rights to work, food, and drinking water and strategies to access adequate social protection, including the possibility of a basic income, by prioritizing populations living in poverty and extreme poverty.
7. Implement specific guarantees around the right to education that contemplate the situation of people living in poverty and extreme poverty, ensuring that factors such as availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality are contemplated by mechanisms promoting distance learning and internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensuring that private educational institutions are appropriately regulated and monitored and implement accountability processes.
8. Adopt emergency measures to mitigate the disproportionate risks jeopardizing the rights to decent housing, drinking water, and sanitation for people living in poverty, people living on the streets, and those in informal settlements, while simultaneously implementing actions from a human rights perspective that will bring lasting solutions for these groups.
9. Ensure that mechanisms for accountability and access to justice are in place during the pandemic to respond to potential violations of the human rights of people living in poverty, particularly ESCERs, including violations committed by private stakeholders and corruption or arrest on the part of the state to the detriment of their human rights.

The OSRESCER is an office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 124/20