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Coronavirus: Poorest may be ‘pushed over edge’ by COVID-19 measures, says UN human rights boss

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By Alasdair Sandford
Michelle Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet   -   Copyright  Marco Ugarte/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.   -  

Efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak around the world could prove to be the last straw for the worst off in society, the UN’s human rights chief has warned.

“People who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures to contain the virus,” Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Friday.

In a statement issued from Geneva, she said that those who stay off work to “self-isolate” may lose pay or jobs, “with far-ranging consequences for people’s livelihoods and lives”.

Bachelet said that as a medical doctor and former head of government, she understood the “difficult balancing act” in taking hard decisions. But she warned that efforts to combat the virus “won’t work” unless great care was taken to protect the most vulnerable and neglected.

“Such people include those on low incomes, isolated rural populations, people with underlying health conditions, people with disabilities and older people living alone or in institutions,” she added.

Lockdowns, quarantines and other measures to contain and combat COVID-19 “should always be carried out in strict accordance with human rights standards” in a manner proportionate to the risk, the commissioner said.

She warned that trade and travel disruption would likely hit small and medium-sized firms in particular. Governments must be ready to respond to “unintended consequences”, and businesses should show flexibility to their employees.

Commenting that “we are all operating in uncharted territory”, Michelle Bachelet said “international solidarity and co-operation are more needed than ever”.

Everyone should have access to treatment, the former president of Chile went on. “We are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.”

On Thursday the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) accused some countries of failing to take the coronavirus outbreak seriously enough.

More than 95,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed worldwide, with more than 3,000 deaths reported.