08 September 2020

Is Covid-19 a Human Rights issue?


2020 has been a healthcare catastrophe. The spread of the coronavirus has seen hundreds of thousands die around the world, and millions more affected in one way or another. So the question has to be asked, what has covid-19 to do with human rights?

To answer that, you need to start with the basics. Obviously a state can not stop people from getting sick from a virus. It will spread, but a state can take measures to limit exposure to it. What's more it is the responsibility of each state to ensure its population is protected. Also access to health care is a human right. So whilst a government may not be able to stop a virus arriving in a country, they can take whatever measures are available to them to limit its spread. 

So far so good, but what if the ongoing health crisis is used as a means to an end for other objectives. Any action taken must align with international law, be proportionate, temporary, and be subject to independent oversight and review. Additionally, some rights are beyond limits. For example, people must be allowed to speak out if they think the measures being taken are overbearing or insufficient without fear of reprisal.

The global pandemic affects us all in one way or another, but some groups are adversely affected more than others. The obvious groups are the elderly and those from of BAME origin, and the press has focused on the disproportionate deaths in these demographics. But the virus affects people through:

  • Their mental health (e.g. people stuck at home for extended periods with no  social contact).
  • Disability (e.g. wheelchair users being unable to access public toilets that are closed, or changes to access shops / offices due to social distancing measures.
  • Poverty (e.g. people being made redundant, or being unable to work).
  • Refugees
  • Domestic violence brought on by the lockdown.

All action taken by a state to help its population must ensure that these rights are upheld. The problem is some states are using the global pandemic to further their own aims. For example:

  • Poland: Protests by LGBTQ activists of their president's anti-gay rhetoric have been aggressively suppressed by the police, despite the protesters mostly socially distancing and wearing facemasks. See France 24's blog post for more details.
  • Egypt: Healthcare professionals have been arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against the level of healthcare offered. See Amnesty International's press release for more details.
  • Greece: The refugee crisis in the Balkans has seen many arrive in overcrowded camps where they're forced to live in overcrowded conditions. See the International Rescue Committee website for more detail.
  • Elections in over 20 countries are delayed. See the Foreign Policy website for more details.
It is important we call out human rights abuses where they occur. Sometimes world events are used as a excuse for denying these rights. The covid-19 pandemic is just such an event, and we must not allow states to continue with impunity.

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