Political leaders and corporate titans put profit and power ahead of people, betraying promises for fair recovery from pandemic

  • Amnesty International releases its Annual Report for 2021
  • Peddling false promises of a fair recovery from Covid-19 to address deep-seated inequalities world leaders colluded with corporate titans to hoard power and profit
  • Utter failure of the global community to deal with the multiplication of conflicts sowed the seeds for further escalation
  • The impact has been exacted on the most marginalized communities in the world including those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, says Amnesty International

Wealthy states colludedwithcorporate giants in 2021 to dupe people with empty slogans and false promises of a fair recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, in what amounts to one of the greatest betrayals of our times, said Amnesty International today, as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.

Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The State of the World’s Human Rights finds that these states, alongside corporate titans, have in fact driven deeper global inequality. It details root causes including noxious corporate greed and brutal national selfishness, as well as neglect of health and public infrastructure by governments around the world.

2021 should have been a year of healing and recuperation. Instead, it became an incubator for deeper inequality and greater instability, a legacy caustic for years to come,

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

“Leader after leader dangled promises to ‘build back better’ to address deep-seated inequalities that exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. Instead, they have performed a tragic fable of betrayal and greed in cahoots with corporate titans. Whilst this has played out around the world, the effects have been most damaging to the most marginalized communities, including those on the front lines of endemic poverty.”

Vaccine successes undercut by self-interested nationalism and corporate greed

The rapid roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines appeared to be a scientific silver bullet, offering hope of an end to the pandemic for all.

However, despite enough production to fully vaccinate the world in 2021, by year’s end less than 4% of those living in low-income countries had been fully vaccinated.

“At the G7, G20 and COP26 summits, grandstanding on a global stage, political and economic leaders paid lip service to policies that could generate a sea change in vaccine access, reverse under-investment in social protection, and tackle the impact of climate change. Heads of Big Pharma and Big Tech spun us lines about corporate responsibility. At this watershed movement, the stage was set for recovery, and genuine meaningful change for a more equal world,” said Agnès Callamard.

“However, they squandered the opportunity, reverting to type with policies and practice that drove further inequality. Members of the Rich Boys Club offered promises publicly that they reneged on privately.”

Wealthy states such as EU member states, the UK and the USA stockpiled more doses than needed, whilst turning a blind eye as Big Pharma put profits ahead of people, refusing to share their technology to enable wider distribution of vaccines. In 2021, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna projected eye-watering profits of up to US$54 billion yet supplied less than 2% of their vaccines to low-income countries.

Big Pharma were not the only corporate giants to undermine pandemic recovery for profit. Social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provided fertile ground for Covid-19 misinformation, allowing vaccine hesitancy to flourish. Some political leaders also acted as super-spreaders of misinformation, breeding distrust and fear for their own political gain.

“Social media companies’ allowed their lucrative algorithms to spread harmful misinformation about the pandemic, prioritizing the sensationalist and the discriminatory over truth,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The extent of their profiteering from that misinformation and the impact of that on the lives of millions mean those companies have a serious case to answer.”

Marginalized hit hardest by pandemic responses

Whilst many countries in the Global South reaped the consequences of collusion between corporate giants and western governments, devastation was compounded by health systems and economic and social support crumbling under the weight of decades of neglect. Nowhere was this felt more clearly and cruelly than in Africa, which is why Amnesty International launches its report today from South Africa.

With less than 8% of the continent’s population fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, it holds the lowest vaccination rate in the world, beleaguered by insufficient supplies provided to the COVAX facility, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Trust and through bilateral donations. Populations have been left exposed as roll-out campaigns have faltered or failed in countries with already inadequate healthcare systems.

In South Africa, approximately 750,000 children had dropped out of school by May, over three times the pre-pandemic number. In Viet Nam women migrant workers were particularly impacted, reporting food insecurity and inability to meet other basic needs. In Venezuela, the pandemic worsened a pre-existing humanitarian emergency: 94.5% of the population was living in income poverty and 76.6% in extreme poverty.

“In many countries around the world, already marginalized people paid the highest cost for the deliberate policy choices of a privileged few. The right to health and to life were violated on a massive scale, millions were left struggling to make ends meet, many were made homeless, children were left out of education, poverty rose,” said Agnès Callamard.  

“The global failure to build a global response to the pandemic also sowed the seeds of greater conflict and greater injustice. Rising poverty, food insecurity, and government instrumentalization of the pandemic to repress dissent and protests – all were well planted in 2021, watered by vaccine nationalism and fertilized by greed of the richer countries.”

Conflict contagious in face of perilously weak international response

In 2021, new and unresolved conflicts erupted or persisted in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Myanmar and Yemen, with warring parties violating international human rights and humanitarian law. In their wake, civilians were made collateral damage, millions were displaced, thousands killed, hundreds subjected to sexual violence, and already fragile healthcare and economic systems were brought to the brink.

The global failure to address these multiplying conflicts provoked greater instability and devastation. The ineffectiveness of international response to these crises was most evident with the paralysis at the UN Security Council. It failed to act on atrocities in Myanmar, human rights violations in Afghanistan, war crimes in Syria. This shameful inaction, continued paralysis of multilateral bodies and lack of accountability of powerful states helped pave the way for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has flagrantly violated international law.

“In far too few instances did the needed international response come; in far too few cases were justice and accountability provided. Instead, conflict expanded. Extending over time, its impacts worsened. The numbers and diversity of intervening parties rose. New theatres of conflict opened. New weapons were tested. More deaths and injury were exacted. Life was cheapened. Global stability was brought to the brink,” said Agnès Callamard.  

When we needed independent voices most, retrograde trend to stifle dissent flourished

Global trends to stifle independent and critical voices gathered steam in 2021 as governments deployed a widening gamut of tools and tactics. Human rights defenders, NGOs, media outlets and opposition leaders were the targets of unlawful detention, torture and enforced disappearance, many under the smokescreen of the pandemic.

At least 67 countries introduced new laws in 2021 to restrict freedom of expression, association or assembly.  In the USA, at least 36 states introduced more than 80 pieces of draft legislation limiting freedom of assembly, whilst the UK government proposed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would drastically curtail the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including by expanding police powers.

Surreptitious digital technologies were further weaponized.  In Russia, the government turned to facial recognition to undertake mass arrests of peaceful protesters. In China, the authorities ordered internet service providers to sever access to websites that “endangered national security”, and blocked apps on which controversial topics such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong were discussed. In Cuba, Eswatini, Iran, Myanmar, Niger, Senegal, South Sudan and Sudan, authorities resorted to internet shutdowns and disruptions to prevent people from sharing information about repression and organizing in response.

“Instead of providing room for discussion and debate so sorely needed on how best to meet the challenges of 2021, many states redoubled efforts to muzzle critical voices,” said Agnès Callamard.

If those in power want to build back broken, we must stand up to betrayal

If in 2021 those in power lacked the ambition and imagination to tackle one of the gravest threats to humanity, the same cannot be said for the people they should have represented.  

Protesters took to the streets in Colombia after the government decided to raise taxes even as people were struggling to feed their families during the pandemic. In Russia, opposition rallies went ahead in the face of mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. Indian farmers protested new laws that they said would hurt their livelihood. 

Youth and Indigenous activists around the world called out leaders for their failure to act on the climate crisis.  Civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, successfully lobbied for the recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Innovative strategic litigation cases and criminal complaints were filed by NGOs against multinational companies including Nike, Patagonia and C&A for their complicity in forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China.

In a great example of cooperation, the Pegasus Project – a collaboration of more than 80 journalists, with technical support from Amnesty International – revealed that the spyware of Israel’s NSO Group had been used against heads of state, activists and journalists in Azerbaijan, Hungary, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.

“Despite promises and pledges to the contrary, at almost every turn, leaders and corporations opted for a non-transformative path, choosing to entrench rather than overturn the systemic inequalities behind the pandemic. Yet, people the world over have made it abundantly clear that a more just world, grounded in human rights, is what they want,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The palpable and persistent resistance offered by people’s movements the world over is a beacon of hope. Uncowed and undaunted, theirs is a clarion call for a more equal world. If governments won’t build back better – if they seemingly are intent on building back broken – then we are left with little option.  We must fight their every attempt to muzzle our voices and we must stand up to their every betrayal. It is why, in the coming weeks, we are launching a global campaign of solidarity with people’s movements, a campaign demanding respect for the right to protest. We must build and harness global solidarity, even if our leaders won’t.”