Multiple forms of discrimination induced or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: What responses by local governments?

The deep impacts of the pandemic over liberties, public health and socioeconomic conditions of people everywhere in the world have brought leaders and experts from global to local institutions to frame the current situation as a human rights crisis. The former high level dialogue on the future of the human rights cities (2020, Gwangju) brought the OHCHR and local government leadership to reinstate this call, emphasizing how the 2020 pandemic did not only exacerbate old forms of human rights deprivation and discrimination, but also created new ones. A public event organized by Barcelona this week explored this situation from the perspective of non-discrimination, especially with regards to vaccine access.

The following report explores the role of local government practices and networking in addressing different forms of discrimination that have arisen or have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, equally identifying potential evolutions beyond the crisis.

The Barcelona Human Rights Centre organized a public event to explore new forms of discrimination arisen in the context of COVID-19

Held on April 27, 2021 in the context of the “Let’s Talk about Rights” series, this public event brought together experts and civil society representatives working on non-discrimination at the city level. Participants were Manuela Battaglini, digital ethics expert and CEO of Transparent Internet; Blanca Gracés, senior researcher in the CIDOB migration area and Irene González Pijuan, a public services advocacy technician and member of the “Salut, Drets Acció” (Health, Rights, Action) collective. The goal was to explore new human rights challenges triggered by the pandemic, having a specific effect or relationship over discrimination patterns.

The event focused on key issues that are highly relevant to local government action in this field. One is the role of digital technologies and how apps developed to track COVID-19 or digital vaccination certificates put the right to privacy under strain. The increasing impact of digitalization poses indeed a dichotomy between global aspirations to monitor personal data without limitation and local emphasis on keeping privacy a right. In this context, governments are a key regulating agent and a guardian of residents’ rights.

[ The following call by the OHCHR, UN-Habitat, UCLG and Eurocities leadership stresses the role of local governments in protecting digital rights in the COVID-19 era ]

The impacts of the pandemic on migration were also addressed with particular emphasis. Universal access to vaccines, integrated public health strategies and universal rights protection were deemed essential to guarantee everyone’s health and a sustainable recovery which leaves no one behind. Participants emphasized how the pandemic had an unprecedented impact on freedom of movement, due to the global closing of national borders. In the long term, the pandemic will exacerbate the causes behind migration.

The Barcelona human rights department already organized in June 2020 a first workshop with local civil society organizations aimed at measuring how did the COVID-19 pandemic impacted discrimination. This was held in the context of the presentation of a biannual report monitoring discrimination at the Barcelona level, developed by the city in partnership with local civil society.

You can know more about this process here and here.

A compilation of challenges and initiatives by local governments worldwide

The issue of universal access to vaccines has been raised recently in UCLG. Indeed, the UCLG co-presidency launched last April a statement calling for the international release of vaccine patents, calling for “the temporary release of vaccine patents so that vaccines can be produced by any country in the world” and that “Moving forward together is the only guarantee to overcome the pandemic: The COVID vaccine cannot be a commercial investment”. You can know more about this here and in the peoplesvaccine.org site.

Even though international solidarity represents a key aspect of local governments’ efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on discrimination, there’s a myriad of initiatives being implemented on the ground as well with the same purpose. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • The mayor of Barcelona has publicly defended the Barcelona Declaration for the Release of Patents, which aims to temporarily release the Covid vaccine patents, “allowing for the knowledge transfer and / or production to accelerate global production capacity of these to its maximum”. The mayor committed to bringing such declaration to the national government and to promote its support among other local and regional governments as well as international networks.
  • The local government of Ottawa recognized racism as a public health issue in order to increase awareness of discrimination related to COVID-19 and foster actions to counter racism. The same city also worked with the health system to collect data on how COVID-19 affected race and ethnicity “to better understand the barriers to health and health care in Ottawa, and health outcomes for people who are racialized”
  • The local government of Vancouver launched a public campaign to counter anti-Asian assaults and vandalism triggered by the pandemic. The motto of the campaign was “It’s a health issue, not a race issue: Don’t turn a blind eye. COVID-19 affects us all. Racism doesn’t have to”.
  • The city council of Montreal unanimously denounced anti-Asian racism through a local motion denouncing “acts of hate, discrimination and violence directed against Montrealers of various Asian origins”, and invited other cities to adopt similar ones.
  • The Human Rights Commission of New York carried out 30 bystander intervention trainings, fostering residents’ engagement in defending community members facing bias, discrimination or harassment in public space. These interventions aimed at responding to the unprecedented climate of anti-Asian harassment connected to COVID-19 stigma. In 2020, the Commission created a COVID-19 Response Team to address discrimination related to the virus, noting how “All New Yorkers are facing extraordinary levels of stress right now; discrimination and harassment should not be among them”.
  • The local government of Mexico City, through its council for preventing discrimination (COPRED), raised awareness on worsened episodes of discrimination faced by migrants due to the pandemic and promoted a study that identified 23 good practices among local governments in Latin America aimed at supporting migrants and prevent racism.
  • The local government of Montevideo focused on the increased levels of discrimination faced by the LGBTIQ+ community. Already in March, the Secretariat for Diversity reinforced its public attention and support lines through the call “Estamos con vos” (We are with you), as the domestic context could trigger extraordinary levels of stress, vulnerability or risk for these Montevideanos.
  • Various local elected officials of Libreville held a public event to stress the key role played by working women in care services as essential to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and distributed protection materials to guarantee their health.
  • The local government of Sfax adopted extraordinary measures to provide a basic livelihood to residents at extreme risk of vulnerability and ensure universal access to public health, especially migrants in an irregular situation, targeting at the same time different forms of bias and discrimination through community dialogue.
  • The local government of London created a dedicated web section to inform non-UK nationals on relevant issues related to the pandemic, including access to healthcare and vaccination plans, visa and immigration procedures or how to get support. In a public statement, the Mayor of London also called for action to tackle equality, denouncing how “Black people are 1.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people” and “Working mothers are 47 percent more likely than working fathers to have los or resigned from their jobs during the outbreak”.
  • The local government of Paris issued several measures aimed at protecting the LGBTQI+ community in the quarantine period, including reinforced and adapted access to police services (creation of a specific liaison within the same force) as well as to psychosocial support and care services organized at a community level.
  • The metropolitan city of Gwangju adopted specific measures to ensure non-discrimination in accessing e-learning and homeschooling for children with some form of disabilty. Specific coordination procedures and learning methodologies were established to support deaf students, blind students and students with developmental disabilities. The work of the Gwangju Special Education Online Learning Support Group, including the work of 48 local teachers, was essential in this sense.
  • The metropolitan government of Seoul guaranteed access to COVID-19 vaccines for foreign nationals and issued specific communiqués with this regard. In a line with the local human rights system premises, the city established a taskforce for comprehensive support for single-person households facing different barriers.
  • The regency of Wonosobo is working on the implementation of a human rights complain tool which will make it easier for residents for accessing proximity-based access to justice mechanisms, denounce human rights infringements and other forms of discrimination. The regency seeks to harness the potential of digital technologies to empower residents in defending their rights.

In short, these measures show how local governments across the world care for the diverse needs of their communities and seek to protect with special emphasis those suffering the most from the pandemic (usually those that are facing larger levels of discrimination). Policy innovation and fostering cooperation with civil society is key to deliver effective solutions in this sense while building trust and a culture of inclusion and caring at the local level.

Know more about this issue: