The Bangkok Business and Human Rights Week is fast approaching amidst the Covid-19 public health crisis that is strongly related to violations of human rights.
In the current global health crisis, the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines has been an unprecedented scientific achievement. Yet most OECD countries, as well as countries in Southeast Asia, are yet to receive supplies sufficient to vaccinate all their priority populations.
To mitigate the health and economic risks associated with unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines, the public and private sectors must coordinate their efforts and resources to address vaccine access as a fundamental human right for everyone.
The right to the highest attainable standard of health was first articulated in 1946 in the Constitution of the World Health Organization. Nearly every country in the world has ratified at least one international agreement that imposes specific obligations on governments regarding the right to health, including those related to “the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” (Article 12 (2) (c) of theInternational Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Paragraph 39 of the General Comment No. 14 (2000) on Article 12 of the Covenant notes ‘States should facilitate access to essential health facilities, goods and services in other countries.’ These extraterritorial obligations for international assistance and cooperation are widely understood to include equitable global vaccine distribution.
Actors in the private sector, such as multinational corporations (MNCs), SMEs, and local and international startups, should be proactive on working closely with national governments and international bodies on how to support and promote access to Covid-19 vaccines for the public, and to ensure everyone has access to a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine. Research conducted by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence in 2020 reports that 78% of the workers surveyed stated that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, and they indicated that companies should be doing more to show their responsibility to protect workers.
This issue is complicated by the current high demand for Covid-19 vaccines worldwide as well as the politics of vaccines. Governments lead the way in policy development and the governance of vaccines. Governments also have an obligation to ensure that companies respect human rights, and promote them during this momentous crisis.
Unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines is an obvious human rights issue. It is grounded in broader structural inequalities, putting some populations at greater risk than others. These include legal and illegal migrant workers, low-skilled workers, people with disabilities, and workers on short-term contracts in various sectors.
Companies need to design and execute effective and inclusive human rights due diligence strategies that promote access to vaccines for all. The steps should include (1) assessing actual and potential human rights impacts on vaccination; (2) integrating and acting upon the findings; and (3) working with the public sector on responses and communicating the impacts of access to vaccination to their employees.
Business has a responsibility to respect the right to work, including healthy and protected conditions of work. At present, COVID-19 has forced many business organisations to face dilemmas of maintaining employment security and investing in occupational health and safety, while also managing cash flow.
A number of MNCs have been adapting to remote working arrangements while ensuring productivity, asking staff and suppliers to adapt to increased business pressures, and ensuring employee well-being.
Protecting staff and suppliers’ safety and reducing the risks of coronavirus by promoting access to vaccines, is a relatively low-cost investment which shores up the sustainability of business enterprises while underscoring the basic right to work.
Companies that promote the right to good health via the promotion of access to vaccines could need to re-design their human rights due diligence strategies, bolster their internal capacity to adopt innovation, and engage employees, suppliers, and clients in all steps. Doing so will enhance companies’ resilience, reduce financial risk, and promote management capacity.
In short, the actions that a business takes now during this crisis will aid in the recovery of economic prosperity while building a more inclusive and equitable future for their workers, suppliers, and for society in the long run.
Nattavud Pimpa is Associate Professor in International Business at the College of Management, Mahidol University (CMMU) and the ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue (ACSDSD).