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GENEVA (6 April 2020) – UN human rights experts made an urgent appeal for governments to commit to racial equity and racial equality in providing health services for all during the COVID-19 crisis or risk a higher death rate because of discrimination.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said in a statement published today that structural discrimination could exacerbate inequality in access to health care and treatment, leading to racial disparities in health outcomes and increased mortality and morbidity for people of African descent.

“Despite robust responses, States have not recognised the specific health risks faced by people of African descent or how racial discrimination and implicit bias and racial stereotypes may pervade policy,” said the Working Group’s chair, Ahmed Reid.

The human rights expert stressed that another problem was the lack of representation at high levels. “This thwarts the leveraging of expertise and protection toward the needs of people of African descent in response to COVID-19.”

The Working Group emphasized that governments should examine how the use of discretion, without adequate guidance, impacts risk and vulnerability in the crisis on the basis of race. Already, where disaggregated data does exist, stark racial disparities are evident.

“Interventions that appear neutral on their face may license or facilitate racial bias, without care and attention. Thus far, no protection efforts have focused the public health response on the specific vulnerabilities of people of African descent,” Reid said. “This also raises the parallel concern that even research and knowledge production in response to this crisis may overlook specific barriers to care or the racially discriminatory impact of policy.”

In their statement, the Working Group noted: “Stressed and overwhelmed healthcare workers and local leadership need more guidance, not less, to prevent racial discrimination at this critical time, including disaggregated data to ensure equitable treatment.”

Disproportionate numbers of people of African descent work in service industries, live in densely populated communities, face food and water insecurity, and often lack access to secure housing.  “These are additional sources of risk and vulnerability. In many States, people of African descent disproportionately serve as home health aides, carers and delivery personnel who help hospitals and health care systems focus on the most serious cases, despite no public efforts to ensure their safety and protection.”

The Working Group said the disproportionate presence of people of African descent in jails and prisons and in camps for refugees and the internally displaced in many parts of the world was particularly concerning, given the extreme contagion, the lack of protective measures, and the use of incarcerated people’s labor. “The ongoing availability of people of African descent to serve in this crisis should not be construed as disposability.

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“States using this pandemic to suspend or roll back human rights relating to affirmative action, the environment, public health, criminal justice, and governance generally disproportionately impair people of African descent in ways that will persist long after the crisis is resolved,” Reid said.

The Working Group welcomed the robust responses to the COVID-19 pandemic but urged governments to recognise the equal urgency of human rights in ordinary times, and ensure access to education, housing, internet, health care, and basic needs at all times, and for all people.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent was established on 25 April 2002 by the then Commission on Human Rights, following the World Conference against Racism held in Durban in 2001. It is composed of five independent experts: Mr. Ahmed Reid (Jamaica), current Chair-Rapporteur; Ms. Dominique Day (United States of America), Vice-Chairperson; Mr. Michal Balcerzak (Poland); Mr. Sabelo Gumedze (South Africa), and Mr. Ricardo A. Sunga III (The Philippines).

The Working Group is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Their experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.