COVID-19 and human rights

A woman pushes another in a wheel chair as they walk down a street. Both wear surgical masks © EPA-EFE/DAVID CHANGAs the virus  expands further and wider, and countries are driven to take more and more drastic measures to slow down its spread, a number of human rights institutions and experts have been highlighting issues of concern and proposing possible solutions.

“As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. "However our efforts to combat this virus won't work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically."

In addition to the High Commissioner, a number of independent UN human rights experts have highlighted specific human rights issues linked both to the pandemic itself and to the measures taken to arrest its spread within and between countries.

For example, Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has urged States issuing advice to people to self-isolate themselves at home, to set specific measures in place for those who are homeless or living in less than ideal conditions.

“I am urging States to take extraordinary measures to secure the right to housing for all to protect against the pandemic,” she said.  At a minimum, States should “cease all evictions; provide emergency housing with services for those who are affected by the virus and must isolate; and ensure that the enforcement of containment measures (e.g. curfews) does not lead to the punishment of anyone based on their housing status.”

People with disabilities, many of whom fall into the category of those who are especially vulnerable to the virus, also risk being disadvantaged by measures taken to combat Covid-19, said UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas.

"People with disabilities feel they have been left behind," she said. "Containment measures, such as social distancing and self-isolation, may be impossible for those who rely on the support of others to eat, dress and bathe."

A group of 16 UN independent experts, or ‘Special Procedures,’ have also urged States not to crack down on human rights defenders or critics.

“Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent,” they stated in a joint press release.

The UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, Michael Lynk, reminded all the authorities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) that they have a duty to provide essential healthcare to people living in the West Bank and Gaza, and urged that health measures for the pandemic are applied in a non-discriminatory fashion.

“Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community,” read a statement from a group of freedom of information experts including UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye.To this end the group urged governments to permit the free flow of information including providing truthful information as well as not to limit access to the internet.

The Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky also issued a statement noting that “fiscal stimulus and social protection packages aimed directly at those least able to cope with the crisis are essential to mitigating the devastating consequences of the pandemic.”  He proposed that public services be “provided free of charge for those who cannot afford them, and debt-servicing should be suspended for individuals unable to cope with the public health crisis.” He pointed out that the self-employed, and others who cannot work from home need economic and fiscal incentives to stay at home – otherwise they will go to work and put their own, their families’ and the broader community’s health at risk.

In a joint editorial, Bachelet and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi wrote that Covid-19 tests not just health-care systems and rapid response, but humanity itself. “Beyond these very immediate challenges, the path of the coronavirus will also undoubtedly test our principles, values and shared humanity.”

“The health of every person is linked to the health of the most marginalised members of the community. Preventing the spread of this virus requires outreach to all, and ensuring equitable access to treatment,” they wrote. This access needs to be available whether they are in an elderly living facility, a prison, or a migrant or refugee camp.

The virus should not be used as a chance to fan the fires of discrimination or hate speech, the two High Commissioners wrote. Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis, and they urged political leaders to earn trust through transparent and timely information and working together for the common good and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

“If our response to coronavirus is grounded in the principles of public trust, transparency, respect and empathy for the most vulnerable, we will not only uphold the intrinsic rights of every human being. We will be using and building the most effective tools to ensure we can ride out this crisis and learn lessons for the future.”

 23 March 2020

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