Whose Rights Matter in Pandemic America? Not Those of Poor Americans, That's For Sure
In June 1990, future South African President Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress only months after being released from 27 years in a South African apartheid prison. He reminded the political leadership of the United States that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanise them.”
Three decades later, Congress would do well to finally heed that warning. In a moment of unprecedented crisis, when 140 million people in the richest country on the planet are poor or low-income, when tens of millions of them are on the verge of eviction and millions more have lost their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, at a moment when Congress and the president are debating the next Covid-19 relief package, isn’t it finally time for human rights and guarantees to become the standard for any such set of policies?
I was introduced to the idea of using a human rights framework to address racism and poverty when I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union. From poor and dispossessed leaders building a human-rights-at-home movement, I learned about the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). I came to understand how the concept of inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant that all people should be guaranteed the right to jobs that pay living wages, an adequate standard of living, public education, and the ability to thrive (not just barely survive).
Today, Congress is being driven to respond to a crisis that has this country in its grip with a $1.9 trillion relief package. The lesson of history, however, is that such measures, when they align with the basic demands of justice, should not be piecemeal or temporary. They should not be opportunities accessible only to some but rather guarantees of promise and possibility for everyone. Plagues and pandemics are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes for normal. Americans should not be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world of ours a wreckage of inequality, racism, and poverty will now lift us out of this mess. Instead, our political leaders would do well to follow the principle of “Everybody In, Nobody Out.”
Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. offered a warning to the Security Council appropriate to this pandemic moment:
“How a society treats its most vulnerable — whether children, the infirm or the elderly — is always the measure of its humanity. Even more so during instability and conflict. When a society begins to disregard the vulnerable and their rights, instability and conflict will only grow.”
The Right Not to Be Poor
In 1948, after two bloody world wars punctuated by the Great Depression, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw a need to safeguard basic rights and a minimum standard of living for people worldwide. The nations of the U.N., according to human rights scholar Paul Gordon Lauren,
“came to regard the economic and social hardship suffered during the course of the Depression as contributing greatly to the rise of fascist regimes, the emergence of severe global competition, and ultimately to the outbreak of war itself… They believed that poverty, misery, unemployment, and depressed standards of living anywhere in an age of a global economy and a technological shrinking of the world bred instability elsewhere and thereby threatened peace.”
At the time, the American government, ascendant on the international stage, saw some value in the framework of human rights, even if its actions at home and abroad didn’t match up to it. In reality, that same government was putting significant effort into separating political and civil rights from economic rights. It was using every tool in its toolbox from racism to Cold War paranoia to vilify the very idea of economic rights, let alone the interlocking nature of injustice and the need for wholistic remedies.
Social movements suffered from this ideological assault, as Black organizers in the 1950s and 1960s were blocked from the very idea of universal human (including economic) rights and pushed to focus more narrowly on the terrain of “civil rights,” as historian Carol Anderson has so vividly described in her book Eyes Off the Prize. Nearly two decades after the release of the UDHR, even on the heels of major civil rights victories, leaders of the Black freedom movement recognized that too much remained unchanged and a deeper fight was needed.
It was in this context that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others began to articulate the necessity for a broad movement of the nation’s poor across racial lines. In 1967, a year before he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, he wrote:
“We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year [$20 trillion in 2020], it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education, and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.”
While the language of human rights is still with us today, the old battle lines remain stubbornly drawn as economic rights are cast as impractical and unenforceable and civil rights reduced to statements of unity, while voting rights, immigrant rights, and indigenous rights are mercilessly abridged. The focus, at best, becomes the mitigation of poverty and racism, not their abolition, while the fundamental principles of human rights laid out in the UDHR — universality, equality, and indivisibility — are eternally undercut.
Sometimes economic rights are championed but their exercise drastically narrowed. For instance, a universal right to housing becomes the right to due process in eviction hearings; the right to health or food becomes the right to access certain welfare benefits. The result? Universal economic rights become limited opportunities offered, at best, to a limited population of the poor. In the process, attention is refocused on the individual lives and choices of the poor, rather than on the system that produces their poverty or what could transform it. And sadly enough, it becomes ever easier to ignore what should be the most fundamental of human rights, the right not to be poor.
How to Build Back Better
Recently, the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced that, three years after Trump withdrew the country from the U.N. Human Rights Council, it would rejoin as an observer, with the goal of eventually being voted back to full membership. That move, like Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, as well as his intention to reengage with UNESCO and the Iran nuclear deal, undoubtedly reflects his interest in refortifying America’s international position in the post-Trump era. If he really wants to be an international leader and not just an observer when it comes to human rights, however, undoing the nightmare of the Trump years will only be part of the job that lies ahead.
There will be the continuing fight to ensure that Covid-19 relief is not disastrously watered down by false arguments about balanced budgets and deficits. The costs of inaction — a still-soaring death toll of 480,000 and counting and an estimated 460,000 extra deaths over the next decade thanks to pandemic-related unemployment and its costs — far outweigh the price of decisive action now. The deficits that should truly concern Americans are those in people’s paychecks, the lack of food in their refrigerators, and the grim unemployment numbers that make life a misery. Biden and the Democratic leadership have the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. Now is the time to move immediately on life-saving measures like raising the minimum wage to $15 (including for tipped workers).
And genuine Covid-19 relief that buoyed our beleaguered nation long enough for vaccines to be widely distributed would just be a start. After all, before the pandemic hit, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health estimated that 250,000 Americans were dying annually from rising hunger, homelessness, and inequality, conditions that have only deepened over the last year. If the recovery from the 2007-2008 Great Recession is any indication, expect difficult years ahead, even when the pandemic eases. After all, that proved to be a low-wage recovery that disproportionately shifted women and people of color into temporary and precarious jobs. Not surprisingly then, in the decade after that recession, savings were spent down and household debt was on the rise — and only then did Covid-19 hit.
Shouldn’t the administration’s response to this crisis and the underlying fissures in our society (so badly exacerbated in the Trump years) be held to a genuine human-rights standard? In December, the Poor People’s Campaign, which I co-chair, released a set of 14 policy priorities for Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, including not just temporary protections meant to weather the present storm, but permanent guarantees around jobs and income, housing, healthcare, and so much else. Such building blocks for a vibrant democracy and a life free of poverty should be treated as inalienable human rights. Grassroots organizers — whether the Nonviolent Medicaid Army fighting for healthcare as a human right, the Border Network for Human Rights struggling for a just immigration system, or the Homes Guarantee project demanding housing as a right, not a commodity — have been making this point for years.
A new social contract built on human rights requires a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy and rampant American militarism as well. President Biden’s recent decision to scale back engagement in the human-rights catastrophe in Yemen is encouraging, though its results remain to be seen. It’s obviously time as well to end this country’s twenty-first-century forever wars, as well as the suffocating economic sanctions imposed on countries like Venezuela and Iran.
It’s morally indefensible that the U.S. spends 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon and that it has more than 800 military bases around the world; that the Pentagon itself is a giant greenhouse-gas emitter; and that this country is not only the largest arms dealer on the planet by far, but continues to “export” weapons of war to our police departments nationwide through the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Washington’s eternally militarized posture has led to countless human rights violations abroad, while only adding to a loss of human rights at home, as vital resources continue to be siphoned from our schools and hospitals into the military.
A governing agenda that wishes to protect the right not to be poor would at some point also have to reckon with a system that, even amid a pandemic, produced record numbers of billionaires. Last year, as unemployment rates reached historic heights, America’s billionaires gained more than $1 trillion in wealth.
America’s celebrity culture tracks the day-to-day life of the richest men on the planet like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and celebrates the charitable Covid-19 fighting spirit of people like Bill Gates. His big donations shouldn’t, however, distract us from the fact that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men, including Gates, could buy vaccines for every person on the planet.
Intellectual Property Rights in a Pandemic World
As 2020 was ending and the world awaited the arrival of multiple Covid-19 vaccines, India and South Africa made an urgent proposal to the World Trade Organization. They requested that it temporarily suspend intellectual property rights to ensure that all nations could access and produce vaccines and other medical technologies like ventilators, masks, and protective gear. Dozens of other countries came forward to support that proposal, but a few powerful, patent-holding countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union rejected and ultimately quashed it.
On January 18, 2021, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” because of the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries. Indeed, a new report estimates that at least 85 countries — mostly in Africa and parts of Asia — won’t have widespread coverage until late 2022 or even 2023, if ever. Meanwhile, vaccine hoarding among rich countries has already reached a fever pitch. And this global reality is being replayed in terms of vaccine distribution within the richest countries as well. In the United States, early evidence suggests that the wealthy are already getting significantly more vaccinations than the poor and people of color, even though Covid-19 rates are far higher in poor communities.
While all of this may have been predictable, it wasn’t inevitable. The WHO has cautioned that a “me-first” approach to the vaccines leads to shortages, hoarding, and the pushing-up of prices. And although the profits from this intellectual property are private, the six front-running vaccine candidates have had a total of over $12 billion of taxpayer and public money poured into them.
Intellectual property rights and exclusive vaccine contracts with Big Pharma aren’t the only reasons why Covid-19 is morphing ever more distinctly into a poor people’s pandemic. They are, however, barriers to a universal and equitable response to a virus that has exposed the world’s fragile interconnectedness. With a deadly novel virus on the loose and mutating, at a moment when access to a vaccine may be the difference between life and death, profit over people remains a hegemonic principle. And horrifyingly enough, changes in intellectual property policies over the last few decades may have done even more to increase inequality on this planet than tax cuts for the wealthy.
In the last year, we Americans have battled Covid-19 largely through the same world of trickle-down economics and “austerity” for the poor that was such a reality of the prepandemic world. The Trump administration’s response to the disease was a bitter mixture of triage, denial, and greed. The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds, but there is, at least, a lesson to be learned from all the suffering, if we’re brave enough to take it in: life should come before profit, human rights before property rights. Amen.
Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis Reprinted with permission.
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Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.
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