The Forest or the Trees

Temperatuur meten ©
Temperatuur meten ©

Contribution by: Dr Lorena Sosa, Assistant Professor at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights

In the early hours of the pandemic, many human rights scholars concerned with issues of inequality and intersectional discrimination, such as myself, could anticipate some of the differentiated impact the spread of COVID 19 could have on groups with a deteriorated standard of health and living, and limited access to health services. The profound implications of COVID-19 measures for everybody’s fundamental rights, however, are still being determined.

Confinement measures have stressed gender inequality in work and care, and have risen discrimination and gender-based violence when combined with poor housing conditions, the pressure of home schooling and job insecurity.

Dr. Lorena Sosa
Dr Lorena Sosa

The sudden need for physical distancing reminded us of the threats connected to overcrowded conditions, ranging from student houses to refugee camps, jails, and other confinement institutions. Yet physical distancing measures also make evident our dependency on each other, even more for those whose daily subsistence, in the absence of State support, see their social connections as only safety net.

These ‘unexpected’ consequences also derive from the pre-existing entrenched inequality in our societies. In that sense, COVID 19 is not only a direct threat to public health but it appears as new dimension where inequalities intersect.

Notions of emergency point to the exceptional character of the circumstances, their ‘passing’ nature, distracting from the systemic and structural conditions in which these occur.

COVID-19 as conflict, crisis or emergency?

There has been some critique to the terminology used when referring to phenomena similar to the COVID 19 pandemic as ‘conflict’ and ‘crisis’ [see here and here]. While parallels with armed conflicts are understandable, since those always reduce access to human rights, post conflict measures often focus on criminal responses and ‘reparation’ with little room for transformation. Notions of emergency seem to relate to the phenomena, rather than the urgent immediacy of the responses. In any case, all these notions point to the exceptional character of the circumstances, their ‘passing’ nature, distracting from the systemic and structural conditions in which these occur.

Looking ahead


These unprecedented times present an opportunity to ‘challenge the current hierarchies of power and domination and foster redistributive change’. International and regional organizations have started several initiatives to adopt coordinated measures [see here, here, here and here]. Our scholarship on intersectionality and diversity can help ensure these initiatives are transformative rather than mere reparation. Yet, to contribute towards truly ‘intersectional Interventions’, as Buikema calls for, we scholars need to establish and maintain an interdisciplinary and inclusive dialogue with institutions and civil society. The gender and diversity hub appears as a valuable platform to that end.