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Confronting COVID: How Civil Society is Responding Across Countries | Minority Rights

October 15, 2020

COVID-19 & The Minority Experience: a formula to overcome long-term structural inequalities in building a secure sustainable world
Guest blog by Joshua Castellino of Minority Rights Group International
Joshua Castellino is the Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International (MRG), one of the world’s leading minority rights organizations. MRG campaigns worldwide with around 150 partners in over 50 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard
What are the impacts of the pandemic on minority groups and how are they evolving?

The pandemic is decimating societies, extracting huge death tolls, overwhelming health services and destroying livelihoods while incompetent governance weaponizes its reach and impact. Its disproportionate effect on minorities and indigenous peoples, documented in a new MRG Briefing, reflects its wider economic and social rights impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized. The pandemic represents a rarity - when majorities have experienced for themselves some of the burdens more normally associated with marginalization. This has helped create a heightened awareness of the vulnerabilities of many members of minorities. For minorities and indigenous peoples however, this experience has neither been ‘unprecedented’ nor ‘the new normal’ – they are merely an extension of endemic failures.

Two systemic factors contribute to heightened vulnerabilities. First, the orchestrated rise in xenophobia curated by calculated media strategies has facilitated populist identity politics, bringing oligarch interests to the forefront of governance, decimating state investment in socio-economic services. Second, the xenophobia, at least in some cases envisaged as part of a power-grab strategy, is fracturing society while scapegoating minorities and spurring anger.

The root of the problem lies in societies’ inability to generate employment faced with growing automation, fuelling frustration among its lower socio-economic strata that is being directed against ‘establishment politics’. This anger is being stoked on grounds that jobs are being ‘taken’ by others with ‘lower entitlements’.

Entrenched discrimination marginalizes minorities from access to education and hinders wealth generation within many minority communities. Consequently, minorities tend to be over-represented in unskilled labour (a facet of their overexposure in frontline jobs). This is augmented by socio-economic conditions including, among others, the inability to shelter effectively or take adequate protection measures. Specific health related comorbidities increasing minority susceptibility to Covid-19 remain under-researched due to marginalization, and too context-specific to be captured in general conclusions.


What are some key policy debates related to how the pandemic responses affect minority groups?

Societal anger at governance incompetency has grown across the board. In many countries, populist leaders found themselves out of their depth in the face of the pandemic. It is against this backdrop that the killing of George Floyd took place in May. The outpouring of solidarity to #BlackLivesMatter has created a historic opportunity to rethink priorities, and to delineate strategies drawing on the spirit of this movement.

In terms of pandemic responses, combatting the increased susceptibility to infection amongst minority groups remains urgent. Addressing lack of access to health services would be next. In countries where universal free health coverage does not exist, it is vital not to restrict access to testing and treatment now, and when available, to the vaccine. When minorities have access to health-related services, discrimination and prejudicecan often make them unwelcome. Failures in transmitting preventative messaging continue to play a significant role in affecting how effectively minorities can shield. Misinformation and governmental ploys at sowing division as a distraction have often targeted minorities and indigenous peoples. WHO guidance on social distancing and hand washing was not tailored to communities’ conditions, and for many these were deemed impossible to implement and dismissed. While emphasis on certain vulnerabilities was effective (for instance for the elderly or those with underlying health conditions), socio-economic conditions, language barriers and discrimination were not included, despite the fact that the virus continues to flow freely among these communities.

In the rush to design a vaccine, ensuring its availability to all will become the new frontline. Minority, indigenous communities and allies fear being priced out, relegated to backs of queues, or ignored. Immunity passports could deepen structural inequalities, pushing communities further behind. There remains a chance that emerging vaccines may not cater for minorities’ differential health conditions, since they are less likely to be tested and factored in than majority populations.

What are the priority measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic?

These problems can be overcome with political will and imagination. Amongst necessary measures are: urgent collection of disaggregated data to diagnose problems and design tailored safeguards; providing health services without documentation; prioritizing remedies based on likelihood of exposure; messaging, information, monitoring and action around non-discrimination; urgent outreach to health workers emphasizing the importance of non-discriminationin eradication; prioritization of preventative measures to all frontline workers; translation and tailoring of general guidelines to fit local circumstances by health authorities, coordinated under the guidance of the WHO; guaranteeing immunity passports or vaccines, when developed, will be delivered on the basis of vulnerability; and ensuring that economic aid packages adhere to the widest need rather than to communities proximate to power.

These pandemic related measures need to translate into long-term, human rights-centred policies since this vulnerability is merely the latest manifestation of systemic exclusion. Three wider needs should be emphasized. First, collecting, reporting and monitoring disaggregated databased on gender; ethnic, religious, linguistic, or indigenous status; national origin; migration status; disabilities; sexual orientation; gender identity; and other bases of vulnerability. Second, ensuring that SDG indicators pay special attention to this issue as cross-cutting to goals achievement, and third ensuring that health (and educational) services are based on residence within society and not identity.

Multilateral institutions, civil society and like-minded States should cooperate towards two twinned objectives: challenging narrow nationalist narratives germinating in societies that are fostering social breakdown and augmenting already existing threats to peace and security; and creating safeguards against unfettered capital flows, siphoned from societies where they are generated, to accumulate wealth in places where its benefits are shielded from scrutiny.

What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing human rights into these debates? 

The pandemic highlighted urgent vulnerabilities. These remain staging points for long-term measures addressing societal crises: the climate crisis and rising xenophobia creating febrile environments enabling episodes like pandemics to run through communities. Social movements mobilising for change are backed by youth across political spectrums. The onus lies on those who can, to provide leadership disrupting systemic structural discrimination that hinders universal realisation of rights. Seventy-five years ago the United Nations was formed to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. The threat to human security is multifaceted and probably nearer than at any time in UN history. Technical solutions exist alongside growing collective aspirations to move to safer ground. Minorities form a litmus test of their efficacy. Tuning out the ambient noise generated by the dominance of global media by oligarchs, and listening and responding to the grassroots of society is fundamental to this quest.


CESR and MRG have been working together since 2019 on a broad program of work that addresses the discriminatory barriers in law, policy and practice that prevent indigenous people and ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities from enjoying their economic and social rights. This includes work with local partners in Peru, Colombia and Egypt, as well as engagement at the international level, such as with the UN Human Rights Council.

The Confronting COVID series profiles how our civil society partners in various countries are responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that human rights norms, tools and strategies are playing in economic policy debates at the national level. 
Photo courtesy of MRG depicts a Syrian refugee woman putting a face mask on a boy as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in al-Wazzani area, southern Lebanon / Ali Hashisho / Reuters