COVID-19 and the Right to be Human

A novel strain highlighting well-worn paths

Anna Moore

“Truth is not an absolute. Instead, the rules that determine what counts as truth mean that some truths count more than others.”
Patricia Hill Collins (2019)1

The great pandemic of 2020 has pushed the human rights regime into a brand-new dominion. The challenges for state leaders and activists alike will be, for the foreseeable future, continually linked to activities of other countries; their ability to suppress infection rates, and successful mechanisms for protecting populations from illness or death.

Moreover, the strategies that take us out of lockdown, due to the global importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, will need to consider how to protect the rights of wider disenfranchised communities. The sustainability of change making strategies will need to include oppressed communities in the entirety of solution finding processes.2 These components will be vital, if we, as a global community are to use this moment in humanity’s history, to move society away from the historical structures of subjugation that continue to plague our current world.

It cannot be argued that there is a causal link between the need for people to protest against oppressive structures and the exploitative labour violations trapping millions of people in modern slavery. Yet the urgency of our world in crisis is clearly felt by millions worldwide.

Just 53 years after the slave trade was abolished in the United States,3 the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 swept across the world killing approximately 50,000,000 people.4 Black Americans in 1918 were still very much living in the shadow of the transatlantic slave trade, and were overwhelmingly experiencing racial violence, marginalisation, and being confronted by damaging ideologies of white supremacy.5 The racial discrimination recorded through medical, police and public health data, from the early 20th Century in the United States, would not look out of place in today’s omnipresent media outlets and news feeds.

A century later in 2020 a different deadly pandemic, COVID-19, has swept through our countries, cities, and communities. The restricted movements of millions of people across the world in the form of regional lockdowns was seen as necessary, by scientists and governments alike, to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Akin to a game of musical chairs, wherever the music stopped determined the severity of the lockdown experience. On May 25th however, the murder of George Floyd became the catalyst for people to defy government lockdowns in world-wide protests. The people were demanding once again for an end to racial injustice, discrimination, poverty, and hierarchical societal standards based on inherited wealth and skin colour.

The pandemic continued spreading. As did word of George Floyd’s death. Protests linked to the Black Lives Matter movement were held in eight countries across Africa. Almost twenty countries spanning Eastern to Western Asia had protesting populations. Around 30 countries in Europe held protests too, as well as many countries across the Americas, in Oceania, and the Caribbean.6

In Kazakhstan, protesters reportedly held banners with the slogan ‘I can’t breathe’.7 A phrase that, as the last words gasped by George Floyd, became ubiquitous with the Black Lives Matter protests. These three words, and this movement, have spread across the world, not only because of the clear injustice that occurred when a young Black man was murdered by a White police officer in the United States. But because the strength of Floyd’s words resonated with millions of people experiencing and witnessing a continuation of oppressive structures across the globe.

For the first time in two decades the United Nations has stated a predicted rise in forced child labour.8 The global health crisis has created a surge in the need for face masks, gloves and other sanitary equipment to slow the spread of coronavirus. As demand has continued to increase, rises in slavery practices have been reported. According to Thomas Reuters Foundation the augmented production of ethanol made from sugar cane, and needed to make anti-bacterial alcohol-based gels, has been linked to child labour in Brazil, Mexico and Thailand.9

For a large proportion of adults and children worldwide, the conditions dictated by the pandemic have put them at an increased risk of exploitation. People have become more disenfranchised, oppressed, and vulnerable to human rights abuses because the main drivers of modern slavery, that of poverty and financial crisis,10 social exclusion and the failure of rule of law11 have been exacerbated because of coronavirus.12

The foundations of our globalised world have been shaken in 2020. The desire for a system overhaul has been made apparent to all who are listening. The push for systemic change and recovery, both now and post-COVID-19, will require flexible and adaptive thinking to ensure human rights are protected. The structural models of legal compliance, moral obligation, and good sense will need to be shaped with a focus on equilibrium, on an otherwise precarious global landscape.

1Patricia, Hill Collins, “Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory”, (Duke University Press: Durham, UK. Ed. 1st. 2019) p.288

2Rachel Cernansky, “The Voices Missing for Fashions Sustainability Goals”, October 8 2020. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/the-voices-missing-from-fashions-sustainability-goals

3Amanda Onion, Missy Sullivan and Matt Mullen, “Slavery abolished in America with adoption of 13th amendment”, December, 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/slavery-abolished-in-america

4Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus)”, March 20, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html

5Vanessa Northington Gamble, “There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days: African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic”. March, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862340/

6Mohammed Haddad, “Mapping anti-racism solidarity protests around the world”, June 07, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/06/mapping-anti-racism-solidarity-protests-world-200603092149904.html

7Catherine Putz, “Protests in Kazakhstan Disrupted With Arrests”. June 09, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/protests-in-kazakhstan-disrupted-with-arrests/

8Thomas Reuters Foundation, “UN warns coronavirus may push millions of children into underage labour”, June 16 2020. https://www.eco-business.com/news/un-warns-coronavirus-may-push-millions-of-children-into-underage-labour/

9Thomas Reuters Foundation, “Fears surge in demand for hand sanitiser could fuel child labour”, September 18 2020. https://www.eco-business.com/news/fears-surge-in-demand-for-hand-sanitiser-could-fuel-child-labour/

10James Cockayne and Angharad Smith, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Modern Slavery”, April 02, 2020. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-modern-slavery

11Craig, Gary, and Alex Balch, eds. The modern slavery agenda: Policy, politics and practice. Policy Press, p. 30

12Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, “Covid-19 and Migrant Workers”, October 13 2020. https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/big-issues/covid-19-coronavirus-outbreak/covid-19-migrant-workers/

MEET THE AUTHOR

Anna Moore is a multilingual policy advisor currently working as an external consultant for Anti-Slavery International. She holds an MSc in social psychology from the University of Liverpool and has expertise in modern slavery, socially excluded populations, corporate social responsibility, and human rights. Follow Anna on Twitter @mooreanna01.