As the novel coronavirus continues to surge across the globe, the international community is delivering trillions of dollars toward the fight against COVID-19, creating funds for pandemic response, and sponsoring new initiatives to tackle the dire shortcomings in our health infrastructures. But the thorniest challenges we face are not a lack of protective gear or too few hospital beds.
This historic global moment – defined not only by the coronavirus pandemic but also by state violence and a mass movement for racial justice – has exposed the long-term costs of ignoring systemic injustice and inequality. It demands that we address the underlying failings that have left so many people vulnerable or marginalised in the first place.
To respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next, we must recognise that these structural shortcomings are the core obstacle to successfully meeting such global challenges. Human rights advocates and community-led civil society have long focused on dismantling systems predicated on inequality and corruption; their leadership and the participation of their communities – fuelled by international support – is essential to building institutions and systems that work for all, especially in times of crisis.
From protests to the pandemic, the events of 2020 have fully exposed how institutionalised inequality plays out in times of crisis.
COVID-19, despite what some have said, is not a great equaliser. The virus poses a threat to everyone, but people who are marginalised, discriminated against, or poor are paying the highest price. These communities are the same ones left struggling to access government assistance programs set up to support people through the pandemic.
This is what inequality looks like in action. Entire populations have been marginalised for decades – even centuries – leaving communities vulnerable to the horrors of this pandemic. If we fail to directly address the shortcomings that have pushed communities to the margins, we are missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Since the coronavirus arrived in India, for example, the country’s 400 million informal workers, who depend on contract work and daily wages, have struggled to meet their most basic needs. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown, many were stranded in the overcrowded cities where they work, unable to return home. Many of these workers are unregistered – 16 million in construction alone – and unlikely to receive government relief funds or access to life-saving supplies.
Systems like these segregate our world and animate inequality. Simply making these systems more efficient – by addressing shortcomings in public healthcare or the supply chain, for example – is not enough. We must build new systems based on equity and access, rather than trying to improve the old and structurally flawed.
That’s because those systems have widely been captured by malign interests. From corporate kleptocrats to wannabe populists, corrupt actors have benefited from the root problem – inequality – and seek to preserve it through any means possible.
Corruption and its sibling, abuse of power, are existential threats to fair societies and the rule of law, ready to exploit crises rather than manage them in the interests of ordinary citizens. The Nigerian House of Representatives, for example, pushed this summer to pass a draconian disease control bill without discussion. The bill’s sweeping provisions could mean the end of civic activism in Nigeria, by expanding police powers, levying steep fines for violations, and provide legal immunity to top officials.
The lessons of this pandemic and the demands for true equality offer an opportunity to upend failing structures and systems and make societies more equitable and governments more accountable. And while this is a tall order, the good news is this difficult, demanding work is already being done in communities across the globe by local civil society: activists, advocates, and leaders who can diagnose the specific problems their communities face and are ready with recommendations that meet the needs of their people.
In India, local groups like Jan Sahas stepped in to support migrant workers, offering accurate information about the pandemic, crucial supplies, and emergency financial assistance. Independent media exposed the aid scheme in the Congo. And in Nigeria, the Action Group on Free Civic Space – a national network of civil society organisations – mobilised to push back against the fast-tracked disease bill. Thanks to their efforts, the bill is now being debated with the crucial input of civil society and rights advocates.
Whether taking to the streets to demand racial justice or playing the critical role of government watchdog, local human rights activists offer the bold vision and leadership necessary to make change happen. For years, human rights groups have offered solutions and proposed reforms to improve how government institutions meet the needs of citizens to everything from justice to health But they face daunting odds – a global pandemic that has limited their ability to operate, growing restrictions on civic space, and an unforgiving economic outlook – and desperately need support.
International institutions and donors are filling government coffers with money earmarked for emergency relief. But these well-meaning initiatives aimed at relief and readiness will only succeed if we also invest in ending the systemic inequalities and injustices that have undermined the response to COVID-19.
Human rights activists and organisations – the same people who have steered their communities through the spread of the coronavirus – are already doing that work. Supporting them and investing in their critical efforts will alleviate suffering now – and help prevent it in the future.
Regan Ralph is the president and CEO of the Fund for Global Human Rights.