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Edited by Helmut P. Aust and Esra Demir-Gürsel
In April 2020, just two months after the coronavirus crisis first broke out, the World Bank estimated that an additional 40-60 million people worldwide had already been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. Studies suggest that up to 400 million people will be forced below the poverty line of $1.90 a day when the immediate impact of the pandemic is combined with the effects of the profound global economic slowdown that many economists are forecasting. Some governments, including those of Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand, took action early, and, in doing so, reduced the impact of the virus among their populations. Others, including Brazil, the UK and the US, received international condemnation for their negligent, reckless and in some cases inhumane handling of the pandemic. When this Afterword was authored, in June 2020, governments around the world were in the position of having to make urgent and life-threatening trade-offs: continue to keep populations under lockdown in order to save lives, all the while enhancing the prospect of a severe economic crisis; or ‘save’ the economy by removing lockdown restrictions sooner, meanwhile risking a second wave of infections, health system collapse and further deaths.
Severe poverty is one of the foremost moral issues of our time. The fact that around one in ten people worldwide lack access to the resources necessary to meet many of their most basic needs is egregious in light of the vast wealth possessed by the world’s economic elite. In his provocative contribution to this volume, Vittorio Bufacchi rightly characterises this situation as unjust, but he argues that we should resist calling it a human rights violation. In his view, characterising poverty as a human rights violation is empty rhetoric that not only fails to serve its purpose of motivating action in the fight against poverty, but potentially undermines this purpose and threatens support for human rights in general. In what follows, I challenge Bufacchi’s arguments for this view. His concerns about the rhetorical disvalue of characterizing poverty as a human rights violation rest on his claim that this characterisation cannot be substantiated. While I call into question the latter, I do think that Bufacchi is right to be wary of some of the ways in which the rhetoric of human rights is used in the discourse on global poverty.