The United Nations' (UN) World Day of Social Justice is annually observed on February 20. It encourages efforts to tackle issues such as poverty eradication, exclusion, gender equality, unemployment, human rights and social protection. This year the theme is A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy. The blurb put out by the UN states that the proliferation of digital platforms in the past decade, has penetrated several sectors of the economy and societies, transforming the world of work. This is especially the case with the expansion in broadband connectivity and cloud computing.
Since early 2020, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to remote working arrangements. That many business activities could retain their operations was reinforced by the growth and impact of the digital economy. At the same time, this development has exacerbated the growing digital divide within, between and across developed and developing countries. Existing inequalities have deepened particularly in terms of the availability, affordability and use of information ICTs and access to the internet. The move to online learning has accelerated education inequality in an unprecedented fashion, especially where before the pandemic it was already high.
What therefore has surfaced from these circumstances, is that the digital divide affects distributive justice in the form of inequalities in access to knowledge, the distribution of income, assets, opportunities for work and enumerated employment, and for civic and political participation. These values, as well as being essential to social justice, are at the heart of human rights.
The International Labor Organization Report (2019) provides glaring examples of global inequities in decent living and poverty that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. Global unemployment was estimated at 172 million and 25% of the world’s population in low income countries lived in poverty. More recent indications are that the situation has deteriorated further since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, with higher levels of underutilization of labour, quality of work, gender inequality and unemployment .
The core issues raised here are embraced in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #10 aimed at promoting greater equality. This goal implies that there is no explicit distinction between international justice or justice among nations, and social justice or justice among people. In other words, justice with respect to international law is linked to the sovereign equality of all Members and to the maintenance of peace and security. In this context, digital inequality is a part of the wider social justice agenda.
Social Justice and the COVID-19 Vaccine Inequalities
The unequal access to the vaccine described as “vaccine apartheid” (referred to the GOFAD Blog 05-02-2021) not only relates to the disparities in global distribution between developed and developing countries, but also to disparities among varying demographics within countries. When combined with the inequalities conditioned by the digital divide, it fully dramatizes the link between social justice and human rights.
In the USA for example, across the 34 states reporting data on vaccinations by race/ethnicity in the CDC Dash Board (February 18, 2021) there is a largely consistent pattern of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and their shares of the total population.
<img src="https://www.kff.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/featuredfeb16-newstate-vaccine-race-ethnicity-1.png" alt="" data-id="0" />
A Report on “Financing rights and social justice for persons with disabilities in the era of COVID-19 and beyond” has recently been produced by The Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities (February, 2021). It illustrates how persons with disabilities that comprise 15% of the global population have been hit particularly hard by the global pandemic. Yet proposals for financing the response rarely include this demographic. The Report provides very useful considerations for ensuring that “international economic policies that tackle the crisis always contribute to the enjoyment of human rights and social justice by persons with disabilities in their diversity, especially those in the Global South” You may read the Report here.
Social Justice and Public Health
Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work, and play. Hence beyond biological factors public health professionals are increasingly pivoting toward recognizing that Social justice is central to public health. This is because research has shown that health disparities are created by social inequities. These 'social determinants of health’ include insurance status, access to health care, reliable access to food, safe housing, transportation, education, safety, and equal protection before the law. There is no better illustration in recent times than the public health response to HIV/AIDS.
Conclusion: Viewing Social Justice with a wider Lenses
It is fitting that we identify the contribution of John Rawls to this UN celebration that focuses on Social Justice. An American scholar and military veteran, he gained his PhD from Princeton University and emerged as one of foremost moral and political philosophers. He was awarded the US National Humanitarian Medal for his ‘contribution to the academic and political space’ by President bill Clinton in 1999. Rawls developed the Theory of Justice based on a social contract rather than the principles of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' propounded by the English utilitarian philosophers Jeromy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. He saw their views as rooted in a "state of nature" that could lead to tyranny. He argued instead that Justice holds that "every individual has an equal right to basic liberties and that they should have the right to opportunities and an equal chance as individuals of similar ability. His notion of social justice is based on two principles:
John Rawls 'two principles' of Justice reminds me of Isaiah Berlin, the British/Lavatian philosopher whose brilliant lecture Two Concepts of Liberty, revolved around 'negative' and 'positive' freedom. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/. Like Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls provides fitting moral codes for guiding policies and practices of social justice in this COVID era and beyond.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.