OPINION - The need for a compassionate economy to protect vulnerable communities

by Kailash Satyarthi | @k_satyarthi | Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation
Monday, 4 May 2020 15:19 GMT

A boy sits as other street children work out at the camp, which the Village Pilot NGO has set up to house and confine children in need of help, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lac Rose, suburbs of Dakar, Senegal April 20, 2020. Picture taken April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The millions impacted by the fallout of COVID-19 show the need for human rights to be placed at the heart of economic policies

Kailash Satyarthi is a Nobel Peace Laureate and child rights activist.

On 18th April 2020, twelve-year old Jamlo Makdam fell on the road and died. She was a child labourer working in the chili fields of Telangana and had been trafficked from her village 150 kilometers away. All she wanted was to return home.

This little girl was not a victim of COVID-19 but of another pandemic looming large all over the world, hunger. Jamlo was one of those hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who either lost their livelihoods or were left to die by their employers amidst the lockdown in India. She was also one of the millions of child labourers across the world who are forced to remain confined in small or large groups, crammed up inside suffocated workshops, factories or mines, brick kilns, farms and houses.

Another chilling reminder of this agony is that of sixteen-year-old Yan Cheng, a resident of China. Living with an extreme form of Cerebral Palsy, Yan was immobile, could not speak or look after himself. His father was his sole caregiver. In mid-January, he was left stranded alone at home as his father was put in quarantine, having shown symptoms of COVID-19. Yan Cheng died, alone at home. He also did not die of the ongoing pandemic but due to its hidden effects.

Pandemic has deeply affected everyone but the worst sufferers are the most vulnerable sections of society. I am afraid to say that if we do not attend to them with the utmost urgency and compassion then the damage caused will be irreparable. These groups include refugees, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, indigenous tribes, people in commercial sexual exploitation, transgender people, street children, trafficked and bonded child labourers, differently abled, HIV infected, internally displaced, asylum seekers etc. They already are socially, economically and politically marginalised and the present pandemic is a cruel double whammy for them.

Due to school closures, 300 million primary school children are missing free meals on which they depend. Families of dozens of millions of students are in serious crisis because conditional cash transfers are linked to school attendance.

The universally adopted Development Agenda 2030 has a strong element of the economic imperative of development – i.e. education, health, poverty alleviation, nutrition, employment, gender equity and climate change among others. Investment towards attaining sustainable development goals has a big financial return. Poverty, inequality and marginalisation are various forms of violence as well as serious obstacles in economic growth. In the new normal of the global economy, vulnerability may further be degraded and dehumanised.

COVID-19 has left an estimated 300,000 women in commercial sexual exploitation helpless, and have brought them on the streets of Thailand with a high risk of exposure to the infection. They are likely to be excluded from Thai Government’s emergency scheme of financial assistance since they can’t prove formal employment. The vulnerabilities for the most marginalised and conveniently forgotten people have exacerbated amid this crisis.

Aid workers are bracing for a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in one of the world's largest refugee camps for Rohingyas in Bangladesh (Cox’s Bazaar). They have already warned that preventing this contagious disease from spreading among more than 1 million tightly packed refugees will be an arduous task. 40,000 people per square kilometer are living in plastic shacks. The situation is nothing short of a ticking time bomb. The plight of indigenous people of the Amazon in Brazil and the children working in the Cocoa plantations of Côte d’Ivoire is no less distressing.

In India, around 470 million migrant and informal workers are stuck because of the prolonged lockdown and have no means of survival except relief from the state or civil society. They are most likely to borrow loans at unreasonably high rates of interest from lenders. By doing this, they may fall in the trap of intergenerational debt and bondage. Their dependents, most likely women and children, will be the worst affected.

I have come across many situations when natural calamities and man-made disasters like flood, famine, tsunamis, conflicts and insurgencies across the nations have left vulnerable groups unattended resulting in large scale increase in school drop-outs, child labour, prostitution and forced beggary of their children.

In the post COVID-19 era when machines and artificial intelligence would dominate our lives, only the most productive human resource will survive, adding to the woes of the vulnerable. Though I am quite confident that when machines render human beings unnecessary, basic human values will be cherished and sought-after.

After experiencing these consequences of globalisation of markets and the profit-maximisation principle, the time has come to think of alternatives. We have to develop a new paradigm of the compassionate economy. Here, my definition of compassion is not a religious connotation but a transformative human value.

Only when the suffering of the marginalised and excluded is felt as our own with an urgency to act for ending it and imbibed into economic policies, benefits of growth can reach the last person of society as Mahatma Gandhi described in his talisman.

 Secondly, the state and citizenry must realise that universal human rights are not merely guiding principles, but enforceable realities and essential conditions for justice, inclusion, harmony and peace.

 Therefore, all economic decisions of the state and other stakeholders must ensure freedom, food, water and medical care for vulnerable groups as a priority.