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Human Rights = Public Health: A Conversation with Michelle Bachelet Moderated by Guillermo Arduino, Anchor and Correspondent CNN

Opening statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

6 October 2020
15:00hrs (GVA time)

Dear Michelle Williams,
Mr Guillermo Arduino,
Dear participants,

I am pleased to join you today in discussing a topic that has been so dear to me all my life.

I am sure all of you here feel the same.

Health is a fundamental human right. It is indispensable for the exercise of many other rights and necessary for living a life in dignity.

COVID-19 has made realizing it even more pressing and urgent.

It is now evident how much, in a pandemic context, one’s health can depend on the behaviour of others.

And how avoiding the collapse of any country’s medical system is a matter of interest to all of us.

Promoting public health is crucial, with the scientific community and academia playing an important role.

Public policies to protect everyone’s health are essential. And so are the protection of frontline health workers, their working conditions and their adequate remuneration.

In addition to a health crisis, COVID-19 has brought to the fore pervasive inequalities and structural discrimination that are leaving wounds in every society, across all realms of life.

This is clearly manifested in the way people enjoy their right to health.

Even before this crisis, socioeconomic determinants of health, such as inequality, discrimination and poverty, were already major reasons why millions of people lack access to good quality health care and services.

Now, those already in vulnerable situations are the ones suffering the most from the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

People living in poverty. People of African descent and members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, whose rights have been for too long affected by structural racism. Indigenous peoples. People with disabilities. Older people, especially those in care-homes. Migrants and refugees. Women and girls, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but exactly because of longstanding discrimination and inequality.

Let me be clear here: gender equality is not an optional extra, nor it can be cast aside in times of crisis. It is essential to peaceful, just and resilient societies. We will never meet the challenges we are facing – or any other -- if we play with just half the team.

These are really challenging and complex times.

As a medical doctor, I know the vital importance of science-based measures to protect public health.

As a former Head of State, I know Governments have had to take some very difficult decisions. My Office has issued human rights guidance on several aspects and impacts of COVID-19, including on emergency measures.

And as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I know that the only way out of this crisis is with more civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, not less.

The pandemic should spur us to adopt strong, transformative measures to heighten the powerful protections that human rights based-policies can provide – by promoting public health, public confidence in official guidance, and greater social and economic resilience.

We cannot go back to the “normality” that made our societies so vulnerable, fragile and unequal.

From the devastating human tragedy brought by the pandemic, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity.

We must build back better.

For that, we must address the inequality pandemic exposed and magnified by COVID-19.

In today's context, universal social protection is a crucial, life-sustaining tool to enable access to health care and education, protect the right to housing and food, and shield people from extreme poverty.

But social protection for all is a distant dream for most of the world’s population. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 71 per cent of the people alive today have no social security coverage, or only partial and inadequate coverage -- including almost two-thirds of the world's children. Women, who often take jobs in the informal economy, are frequently deprived of social protection.

Sustainable recovery efforts will be efforts that advance universal social protection, including universal health coverage. They will integrate access to education, protect the right to housing and food, and shield people from extreme poverty. And they will be grounded in inclusive, participatory processes and ensure equal opportunities for all.

Everyone must benefit from rights-based response and recovery efforts.

And I cannot stress this enough: any vaccine against COVID-19 must be distributed as a global public good.

For that, strong global cooperation and solidarity will be essential.

I am optimistic. Together, we can rebuild societies that uphold human rights and freedoms, including the right to health.

Aside from being legal imperatives, human rights are the tools to build more stable, more peaceful and resilient societies.

Healthier societies in every way.

Talking about public health is talking about how to build them.

I look forward to discussing these issues with you today.

Thank you.