Why we need a new economic model centred on human rights

Friday, 6 November 2020 13:26 GMT

Community health volunteers check the pulse of a resident during a check-up campaign for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, September 30, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Image Caption and Rights Information

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

It is time for governments to back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights

Gabriela Bucher is the incoming Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

And so our world, scarred by human tragedy, came together.

Leaders across the world agreed “to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person”. Calling for equality of “men and women and of nations large and small”. Later declaring “health as a fundamental right”. Pursuing “freedom from fear and want” for all.

The year of such lofty declarations is, sadly, not 2020. Not even amid a pandemic that has taken over a million lives. It was seventy-five years ago as governments in the wake of war founded the United Nations and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That same spirit is needed today. Human rights such as access to healthcare when falling sick, protection when faced with unemployment, or the right to simply participate in decisions which affect our lives are a calling for our time.

That rights such as these have been trampled upon, year by year, has allowed the coronavirus to wreak such devastation and threaten more darkness ahead.

Be it garment workers in Bangladesh, stitching clothes for hyper-profitable fashion chains, abused if they fail to meet targets. Or the privatization of public health and education that then denies people their rights the world over – especially of women and girls. The pharma monopolies which make medicines unaffordable for billions of people and threaten the same for a COVID-19 vaccine today.

This is joined-up injustice.

There are systemic connections between these human rights abuses and today’s extreme form of capitalism. The past four decades saw governments slash taxes and regulation, weaken labor markets, loosen capital controls and privatize public goods, with the planet plundered. Such is our extremely unequal world in which the 1% came to own more than the 99% combined.

Then today’s pandemic hit us, profoundly exacerbating intersecting inequalities. You are hit hardest if you are living in poverty, Black, Indigenous or a person of color, or if you are a woman. COVID-19 risks pushing more than two hundred million people into poverty. Social protection measures have been adopted by governments caught off-guard, but they are often temporary, full of gaps, and often insufficient to protect most people from falling in poverty.

Some have reaped great prosperity from this pain: billionaire wealth is now at a record high, increasing 27% in recent months.

What policies brought us here? The new Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index by Oxfam and Development Finance International, at the intersection of human rights and inequality, offers answers. It tells a story of a world unprepared for today’s pandemic.

The data shows how only one in six countries were spending the recommended minimum of 15% of budgets on health prior to the pandemic. In 103 countries at least one in three workers lacked basic protections like sick pay. Half of countries lack adequate laws against sexual assault.

The Index also contrasts a vast majority of countries failing to tackle inequality from the few that are. The USA trails 17 low-income countries on labor laws because of its anti-union policies and very low minimum wage. Half of India’s population, 700 million people, do not have access to basic healthcare.

While every country could do better, some are adopting more human rights-aligned policies. South Korea has boosted the minimum wage, taxed the rich more and invested more in health. Costa Rica has instituted universal healthcare over the past decade. It is little surprise that these countries, New Zealand, Norway and others that have shown commitment to equality have been better positioned to weather today’s pandemic.

Tackling the unsustainable inequality at the core of today’s capitalism is possible. Policies matter. Our time calls for universal social protection – and a Global Fund for Social Protection – and publicly-funded, publicly-delivered healthcare and education. Universal measures are great equalizers, that reduce economic, racial and gender inequalities.

We can fund key services well by an increase in wealth and solidarity taxes on the richest. We can foster equitable business models, recognize care work as real work and pay all workers a living wage.

We can curb the emissions of the richest and set new economic ideals that go beyond GDP, and help solve the complex equation of eradicating poverty while remaining within planetary boundaries. We can ensure a People's Vaccine for COVID-19.

Our world, scarred by human tragedy, can yet come together. We urge the same level of imagination as the drafters of the Universal Declaration over seventy years ago. It is time for governments to back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights.