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Panelists examine inequity caused by the global pandemic and vaccination distribution during discussion hosted by UHLC's Initiative on Global Law and Policy

Feb. 24, 2021 - In a recent webinar hosted by the University of Houston Law Center's Initiative on Global Law and Policy and co-organized by the University of Bologna Center for Latin American Studies, scholars from Germany and Mexico agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups around the world. "The COVID-19 Pandemic and its Impact on Social Justice," was the first event in a six-part series, sponsored by the American Society of International Law.

"We have seen that the global COVID-19 pandemic has affected us in many ways," said Elizabeth Trujillo, the founding director of GLPA and Mary Ann & Lawrence E. Faust Professor of Law, in her welcoming remarks. "It has tested the limits of legal frameworks as we know them domestically and internationally. With experts from the U.S., Europe and Latin America, there are lessons we can learn from the pandemic in key areas in hopes that it will lead to more discussion, examination, rebuilding and reconfiguring of these legal frameworks that can be better adapted for future emergencies."

Professor Sabrina Ragone of the University of Bologna, co-organizer of the series, explained the connections of the different topics addressed in the upcoming webinars, underlying the importance for countries to learn from each other concerning the response to the crisis.

The event's speakers included Alberto Abad Súarez Ávila of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Anuscheh Farahat of the University of Erlangen–Nürnberg. César Coronel Ortega, co-chair of the American Society of International Law's Latin America Interest Group served as the moderator. 

Speakers emphasized the need for improved institutional competency in handling emergencies; reconfiguring economic strategies to include less austerity, as has been done in the past in Europe, with more emphasis on initial disciplined spending to prevent economic crises resulting from such emergencies; and restructuring regulatory frameworks to better address the “public sphere fragmentation,” as Súarez Ávila describes it, that has occurred.  This pandemic has highlighted the shift towards privatization of traditionally public sphere goods.

Súarez Ávila said among the biggest challenges facing Latin American countries and other regions is the limited supply of vaccines.

"The vaccination process already shows tremendous inequalities," he said. "So far 138,000,000 doses have been administered in 73 countries. According to Bloomberg, 10.2 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one shot and 3.1 percent have completed the two-dose vaccination. Latin America has vaccinated its population at lower numbers. In Mexico, 0.5 percent of the population has received at least one shot, and 0.1 percent have completed the two doses. In Argentina 0.8 percent have received the first shot and 0.4 percent have completed the countries. The numbers in the rest of the countries are even lower.

"The vaccination rate is around 5,000,000 doses per day on average. Ten countries have received 75 percent of the vaccines. At this rate it will take 6.5 years to cover 75 percent of the world's population - the magic number to go back to normal."

Farahat noted that while there may be differences in the degrees of inequality and forms of extreme poverty between Europe and Latin America, both regions shared similar deficiencies.

"The pandemic hit Europe in a situation where it was still struggling with the consequences and the policies implemented to deal with the 2008 financial crisis," Farahat said. "The financial crisis hit southern Europe hardest. Many of the healthcare systems, for instance in Spain, had a huge problem coping with the pandemic. The public healthcare capacities in those countries were already limited and couldn't really cope with the situation during the waves of the pandemic that we have witnessed so far."

Farahat added that Europe underwent a nationalization process, and that responses were determined mainly by individual countries instead of the European Union, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.

"We could witness a lack of capacity and competence of the EU to regulate or develop measures to combat the spreading of the virus," she said. "When it came to purchasing the vaccines, the European Commission had the approach to establish a best practice example of solidarity in Europe by concentrating the purchasing at the European level so that all European countries, even the small ones, would get the vaccines. That process was full of difficulties because the European Commission and the process was slow, and some member states didn't wish to spend the funds.

"It was a great idea in principle, but it was poorly administered. This entire situation contributed not only to further nationalization in the European Union, but also the EU contributing to global inequality by forgetting about their own obligations to cooperate in terms of the right to health."

Participants concluded that politics will play an increasing role in defining the outcome of dealing with emergencies like the current pandemic, populism will continue to impact national decisions, and that lawyers and courts have important roles to play. Specifically, Farahat expressed optimism that despite current trends away from the rule of law, courts are most effective in protecting basic civil and human rights, especially as the pandemic causes governments to increase restrictions on basic liberties of its citizens.

The remaining schedule for the speaker series, "Constitutionalism, Trade, Social Justice, and Sustainability in the Americas: Lessons from the 2020 Global Pandemic," and registration information can be found below:

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