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UNESCO experts urge collective responsibility to protect vulnerable persons in global battle against COVID-19

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UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) have issued a joint statement to guide policy makers and inform the public about essential ethical considerations that need to be addressed during the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Statement on COVID-19: Ethical Considerations from a Global Perspective draws attention to a range of issues of particular importance as public health authorities battle the pandemic. It notes that the pandemic may generate aggravated psychological stress among vulnerable and marginalized people and groups in all parts of the world and even more so in developing countries.

At a time of uncertainty, when societies across the globe take rapid and radical measures against the pandemic, I am concerned about potential threats to human rights, privacy and ethical standards, especially towards the most vulnerable. This crisis calls for the best in humanity with ethical principles as our compass.

UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay.

The statement highlights the importance of recognizing the vulnerability of those affected by poverty, discrimination, violence, gender, pre-existing illness, loss of autonomy or functionality, age, disability, racism, incarceration, migration and the specific difficulties faced by refugees and stateless persons.

Moreover, it recognizes the particular plight of those deprived of basic resources such as water and soap to maintain elementary hygiene, and draws attention to the difficulty of social distancing in overcrowded conditions prevailing in slums and refugee camps for example. The report also draws attention to the heightened risk of domestic violence in conditions of confinement and isolation.

The statement expresses UNESCO’s conviction that the war on COVID-19 requires collective recognition of these emerging and growing vulnerabilities to ensure that health and social policy responses all around the world leave no one behind.

Pandemics highlight the interdependency of States in making protective equipment available, formulating public health policies and boosting scientific research of the highest standards. In their statement, the IBC and COMEST call for action to tackle worsening conditions of vulnerability and urge countries to develop strategies to address them.

The experts also appeal to governments and the international community to take urgent action through international cooperation in the spirit of solidarity, underlining the responsibility of rich countries to help poor nations. In such emergencies, political decisions need to be grounded in science and guided by ethics. Stigmatization and discrimination must be avoided to ensure effective public health measures while scientific research and health measures need to overcome political, geographical and cultural divides.

UNESCO, the World Health Organization and national bioethics and ethics committees have worked closely together to assist Member States in developing sound policies on ethical issues. This cooperation is being stepped up to address the challenges of the present crisis. The IBC and COMEST Statement on COVID-19 will be a central reference in this undertaking and be used by UNESCO and its partners as a tool for capacity building.

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Media contact: Roni Amelan, r.amelan@unesco.org