Human Rights, Equality and Participation: Turning the COVID-19 Crisis into an Opportunity
Op-Ed co-authored by the Ambassador of the European Union to Lao PDR and the UN Resident Coordinator to Lao PDR
Every year on 10 December, the world celebrates Human Rights Day, acknowledging the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR is a milestone in the evolution of human civilization that sets out a broad range of fundamental human rights and freedoms to which all of us are entitled. Accepted as a social compact between Governments and their peoples – and among peoples, the UDHR guarantees the rights to all human beings regardless of nationality, ethnic origin, language, sex, and sexual orientation, religion, political opinion, or any other status.
This year, Human Rights Day coincides with a global and fast-moving health emergency, which has collided with the economic and social spheres creating a perfect storm – a crisis with far-reaching human dimensions affecting individuals, families, and communities all over the world. It has laid bare that despite the global efforts towards inclusive, equitable, and sustainable growth for all, often unintended yet structural inequalities, exclusion, and discrimination within countries and societies continue to be the main barriers to our shared prosperity and potential for further growth. How we respond to the spread and impact of COVID-19 today presents an opportunity to course-correct and begin to tackle the chronic social, economic, cultural, and institutional divides that inhibit human development.
Despite the low virus caseload in Lao PDR, COVID-19 has exacerbated the socio-economic vulnerabilities of those least protected, highlighted gaps in the way public services are delivered, and how inequalities impede access to these services. With a population of 7.1 million, almost half a million people are estimated to have lost their jobs, seeing the unemployment rate rise from 9.4 to 23.4 per cent. The loss of livelihoods is expected to push 383,000 people into poverty, subjecting children and adolescents, especially from ethnic groups and poor households, to multiple deprivations. Projections of the COVID-19 impact on essential health services furthermore show that maternal deaths in Lao PDR this year are expected to double from 286 to within the range of 546-684, exposing a detrimental fallout for women and families alike.
Behind these statistics hide countless individual lives and stories that require the Government and communities alike to disclose such fates, and to understand them, not only to ensure that all women and men, children, youth and older persons, migrants, ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, and those living with HIV/AIDS, among others, are protected from the virus and its impacts but also to take action against the long-standing structural inequalities and vulnerabilities.
By placing people and their rights at the center of the COVID-19 response, relying on social dialogue, empowering local Governments and grass-root civil society organizations (CSOs), investing in community-led-response systems, and strengthening legal and institutional frameworks, Lao PDR can meet the dual challenge of protecting vulnerable groups and gradually eliminate chronic vulnerabilities. There have been some momenta for Lao PDR to enhance the COVID-19 lessons across the wider development agenda, turning the pandemic into the opportunity to build back fairer, stronger, and simply out, better.
The COVID-19 virus does not discriminate, and, therefore, the approach to controlling its spread and ensuring safety for all in Lao PDR has needed to be one that is inclusive, equitable, and non-discriminatory. No one is safe until everyone is safe. This approach has required all levels of the Government, private sector, and local communities to find solutions that strengthen inclusion and leave no one behind in the immediate health response.
There is a number of good examples of this inclusive approach in Lao PDR, with the Quarantine Centers improving practices to better meet the needs of women migrants and local businesses finding affordable and safe accommodation options for employees that were required to reduce working hours. In addition, the Government has worked with the disability sector and ethnic groups to ensure risk information and life-saving advice are available in multiple mediums and languages.
If expanded, these inclusive practices preventing the public health crisis now can enable a rights-based approach that is at the forefront of breaking down the entrenched social, economic, and human inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates. This starts with ensuring that local leaders and groups representative of the diverse population of Lao PDR, especially the most vulnerable and hardest to reach, are empowered to engage in dialogue and decisions that affect them. Not only does this allow the Government to learn what measures are necessary, reasonable, and proportionate, but also enables local communities to take ownership in the response and recovery, strengthening social cohesion and resilience.
Many of Lao PDR’s CSOs and Non-Profit Associations (NPAs) have been contributing to the front-line response, stepping in to fill gaps in essential services supporting where and when national and local Governments struggle to assist those most affected and left behind. Together with media and Community Radios, CSOs have also been assisting with disseminating life-saving advice and promoting solidarity and unity across all levels of the Lao society.
The social dialogue and new lines of cooperation established by the Government with the community-led CSOs and NPAs, women-led organizations, religious communities, as well as the strengthened local governance institutions throughout the COVID-19 response are fundamental in recovering better. Through the 9th NSEDP and UPR Action Plan roll-out in 2021, there is an opportunity to safeguard our social compacts and build on these response practices and enhance community-based service oversight and delivery, advance participatory planning and implementation, and ensure there is shared commitment between both the Government and people in fostering resilience to withstand future shocks, whether from economic downturns, natural disasters and the possibility of new outbreaks of zoonotic disease.
The UDHR’s first line of Article 1 “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” is the baseline to which all Governments and people must turn when molding the COVID-19 lessons into opportunities and defining what a post-pandemic world should be built upon.