Racism, Discrimination and COVID-19 in the Commonwealth

29 July 2020

Since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic there has been growing awareness of the disproportionate impact of the virus, and States’ measures to control it, on Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), and other ethnic minorities.

The UN reports that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic groups in areas such as:

  • the right to health
  • education
  • housing
  • food security and clean water
  • the right to work and an adequate standard of living
  • law and order and criminal justice
  • trafficking and slavery
  • religious discrimination.

Many countries are also seeing an increase in racist and xenophobic hate speech against racial, ethnic and Indigenous groups in relation to COVID-19.

The Black Lives Matter movement has further exposed systemic racism and xenophobia against Black and Ethnic Minorities, and the existing inequalities that create barriers to the enjoyment of basic human rights.

National Human Rights Institutions can use their unique powers to address issues of systemic racism and inequality, and hold governments to account for the impact of pandemic control measures on ethnic minorities. This includes helping to identify people or groups who may otherwise be missed or excluded, supporting the availability of accessible information to these groups, and providing feedback to authorities on the impact of control measures on communities.

The dissemination of accurate, clear and evidence-based information and the development of awareness-raising campaigns by NHRIs are effective tools against discrimination and xenophobia.

NHRIs can also conduct independent reviews, research, inquiries and investigations into the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities, and provide recommendations to government on what actions to take to ensure non-discriminatory policy responses and service provision.

Using their interactions with UN mechanisms across the international human rights treaties, and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), NHRIs can monitor states’ implementation of recommendations to address racial discrimination in all its forms, and better hold their governments to account.

*Definition of racism

For the purposes of this article, racism includes direct discrimination against an individual because of their race, colour, or national origin, and includes harassment, victimisation and indirect discrimination. It covers Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups / individuals, Indigenous people, internally displaced people, national minorities (including linguistic minorities) and migrants. It also includes discriminatory actions such as xenophobia, stigmatisation, stereotyping, exclusion and collective expulsion. In some cases it overlaps with religious discrimination, particularly if a religious group is also a race of people, or is identified as such.

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