Deepening inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 28 September 2021 – World


48th session of the Human Rights Council

Vice-President of the Council,
Dear panelists,
Colleagues and friends,

The scale and scope of the inequalities created and exacerbated by COVID-19 are truly shocking – although they may not come as a surprise to many.

Deficiencies in the upholding and protection of human rights undermined the resilience of people and states, making them extremely vulnerable to this widespread medical, economic and social shock.

The human rights scars of this pandemic run deep – and they are getting deeper and deeper.

Extreme poverty and hunger are increasing. COVID-19 led to the first spike in extreme poverty in two decades: in 2020, an additional 119 to 124 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty, and the number of people living with food insecurity rose by 318 million – that is, according to the FAO an unprecedented 2.38 billion people.

Important achievements are being reversed – also with regard to equality for women and the rights of many ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples.

Cracks in the social fabric of our societies are getting bigger and bigger.

And the huge gaps between rich and poor countries are becoming more and more desperate and deadly.

We must learn the lessons from COVID-19. I welcome this discussion on the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, but I must stress that it should be more than a discussion: it must lead to powerful action.


Gross inequalities within and between our countries have shaped the course of the pandemic, directing its effects on those least protected from harm.

When economic and financial policy ignores the needs and rights of the marginalized, fundamental rights – such as justice, quality education, decent housing and decent work – are neglected. Efforts to ensure equality for all are undermined by chronic underinvestment in public services and the promotion of non-discrimination. And social cohesion and hope are becoming the rarest commodity.

We can and must do better. States are committed to upholding and promoting human rights, including through ratifying human rights treaties and adopting the 2030 Agenda the conflict-related effects of these failures.

So for me, the first lesson from COVID-19 is that embedding human rights in all decision-making processes makes us safer and stronger. They are not just nice to have – they are a prerequisite for building inclusive, stable and sustainable economies and societies. We must ensure that states’ recovery plans are built on the foundation of human rights and in meaningful consultation with civil society. In addition, responsible business conduct must be an integral part of better development.

Steps must be taken to uphold universal health care, universal social protection and other fundamental rights, to protect societies from harm and to make all communities more resilient.

We need measures that promote the right of all to participate fully in public affairs; Steps to secure the greatest possible space for civil liberties; and policies that reduce and eliminate all forms of discrimination create closer communities that benefit from the full contribution of all.

Lesson 2: We need to act together. To act effectively, states must work together in solidarity to distribute vaccines fairly and help one another fight the effects of COVID-19.

Today, hospitals in some regions have essentially collapsed as patients are unable to find the care they need and oxygen is almost entirely unavailable. A vaccine equality crisis is pushing the divide into the heart of the international community.

Just as pre-existing inequalities made states and communities susceptible to contagion, and pre-existing failures to ensure social protection exposed people to the worst effects of the socio-economic devastation of the pandemic, inequality in access to vaccines is creating setbacks for development and for human health Human rights around the world – with potentially massive and long-lasting consequences.

We have to act together because it is right – and because it is in our interest.

Universal access to COVID-19 vaccines will contain viral mutations and help protect everyone from the possibility that a new mutation can overcome the vaccine’s protective effects.

The universal recovery from COVID will bring the world closer to meeting the 2030 Agenda – for the good of all, in rich and poor countries.

The UN stands for leaving no one behind – and is helping all states change the economic, political and social paradigms that have fueled this lack of resilience. My office will continue to work to maximize the power of our partnerships across the UN system – and far beyond – to ensure that human rights and sustainability are at the heart of efforts to respond to and recover from the pandemic.

I am sure that our high-level panellists will provide much insight into the factors that caused the devastating damage of the pandemic and actions that can be taken to address them. What is needed now is action.

Thank you, Madam Vice-President.