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Apr 7, 2021

In Episode 4 of Series 6, Todd is in conversation with Alison Brysk, Professor of Global Governance at the University of California. Alison’s recent work has focused on the global impact of Covid-19 on human rights. In this episode, she reflects on the disproportionate impacts of the virus and explains why she believes that human rights are an integral part of the pathway out of the pandemic.


Todd begins by asking Alison to reflect on the idea of Covid-19 as a threat to democracy and human rights.

Alison starts by talking about a citizenship gap, that is, people “out of place” physically, socially or in terms of status, for example:

  • Refugees 
  • Migrants
  • Internally displaced people

She argues that Covid-19 has intensified that threat, particularly for vulnerable groups who have become subject to increased levels of mobility tracking and surveillance. She refers to examples from Brazil, India and the treatment of Native Americans in the USA.


Todd moves on to discuss concerns around the way governments may be using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to restrict migration, human rights and curb civil liberties. Alison says the first step is to focus on the interdependence of human rights. She points out that vulnerable people are being made scapegoats during the pandemic deflecting attention away from the real issues. She points to a selective approach to some civil rights over others, referencing threats to property and economic activity as receiving the most push back in California, for example.


The discussion turns to the debate surrounding privacy rights - the ongoing debate in the UK around the requirement of vaccination passports, for travel, for example and how that might affect identity rights. Given that this will create individual digital footprints the question is how concerned should we be Todd asks?

In Alison’s view, that depends on the functioning of the health care system. In well-established systems for example, such as in Europe and the global North, it could be a problem but there are well established mechanisms for monitoring privacy.

In most of the world, the situation is different. Access to this kind of health care does not exist. Health disparities and, therefore, a lack of, for example a Covid vaccination passport could create problems for:

  • Those seeking employment
  • Economic migrants
  • Refugees seeking asylum

Some countries stand out as Covid-19 champions, for example New Zealand and Taiwan where there have been increases in state power, but where there are mechanisms for control.


Todd asks about the notion of patriarchy and how it intersects with the pandemic. Alison identifies three areas:

1. Production 

-Two/thirds of front-line workers are women and they have been disproportionately exposed to Covid-19. 

- Female domestic workers comprise a large percentage of migrant labour and have been left vulnerable to the virus.

2. Public space. Governments have used concerns over social distancing and the spread of the virus to restrict peaceful assembly. 

3. Reproduction. Many governments have taken advantage of the pandemic to limit access to reproductive health, for example contraception and abortion. USA and Poland are cited.


Todd points to a marked increase in reports of domestic abuse against women, during the pandemic. Alison refers to work carried out by UN Women, and the data that they have collected, and WomensStats, a project she works on. She finds:

  • An increase of around 30% in reports of domestic violence globally
  • The more severe the lockdown the higher the level of abuse
  • The impacts relate not only to being physically locked in with the abuser but also in being unable to access support

Examples are given from France and Spain where new ways have been developed for women to communicate and seek support where they are unable to make use of established support mechanisms.


The interview closes with Alison reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on her home state, California.

  • Case rates are stabilising, with most areas going down through the tiers
  • 25% of adults have had access to at least one dose of the vaccine.
  • Some issues relating to the vaccination programme have been addressed
    • Bottle-necks in the supply chain of the vaccine
    • Issues re prioritization in terms of who was vaccinated
    • Issues of distribution
  • Evidence of pandemic fatigue especially on college campuses where compliance is low
  • Elderly and middle-class communities have shown most compliance
  • There has been resistance to vaccination in three areas
    • A small number of neo liberal conservatives
    • New age groups advocating alternative medicine
    • Members of the Hispanic population, which makes up 40% of the population and are in the most vulnerable occupations although influential individuals within the community have been working to encourage the vaccine uptake

Further reading

The Future of Human Rights Alison Brysk, Polity Press, 2018

Why feminism is good for your health Alison Brysk and Miguel Fuentes Carreno, New Security Beat, 2020

A Pandemic of Gender Violence in the COVID Era   Audio discussion, The Wilson Center

When “Shelter-in-Place” Isn’t Shelter That’s Safe: A Rapid Analysis of Domestic Violence Case Differences during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Stay-at-Home Orders. M. Mclay 2021

Essential and Expendable: Gendered Labor in the Coronavirus Crisis  Megan Neely, 2020 

The Color and Gender of COVID: Essential Workers Not Disposable People  Catherine Powell, 2020 

UNFPA. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-Based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage. Interim Technical Note: 2020

Addressing the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Migrant Workers UN Women, Guidance note UN Women 2020

COVID-19: Emerging Gender Data and Why It Matters, UN Women Data Hub, 2020