Surya Bahadur Deuja . “We are all in this together. The virus threatens everyone. Human rights uplift everyone. By respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow”. -UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The outbreak of the corona virus disease (COVID-19) is affecting 210 countries and territories around the world. As COVID-19 spreads, different states across the world are declaring drastic measures including state of emergency in order to slow down or stop its spread. At such times, compliance with government health recommendations is extremely important. However, as the UN reminded us on 16 March 2020: “States should not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights.” The outbreak that started in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province) in late 2019 was internationally responded with declaration of ‘a global health emergency’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) which was later scaled up as pandemic a midst the alarming growth of corona virus infections globally . On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that an outbreak of the viral disease COVID-19 first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China had reached the level of a global pandemic. Citing concerns with “the alarming levels of spread and severity,” the WHO called for governments to take urgent and aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus.
As of mid-April, the pandemic has infected more than 2,787,868 people around the world with 194,539 deaths and 771,074 recovery, respectively. The countries with highest number of confirmed cases ranges with the USA 895,072 cases with 50,952 deaths; Spain 219,764 cases with 22,524 deaths Italy 192,994 cases with 25,969 deaths; .Similarly, France 158,183 cases with 21,856 deaths Germany has 154,111 cases with 5,632 deaths; UK 143,464 cases with 19,506 deaths and China 82,804 with 4,632 deaths respectively till the date of this writing. In South Asia, the pandemic has infected the highest number of confirmed cases in India with 23,502 infection with 722 deaths as Maldives(116 cases), Nepal (49 cases) and Bhutan (7 cases) has lower number of confirmed cases with no death till the date.
The pandemic situation has generated politicization of COVID-19 with allegations, claims, counter claims, and creation of opportunities for garnering robust political power. The multinational inter-governmental agencies and organizations have been criticized for their role in responding the pandemic. For instance, US President Donald Trump recently announced that the United States would halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global health agency that has been a leading voice in coordinating the world’s response to the corona virus pandemic. There is allegation that the Chinese government engaged in wide-ranging efforts to suppress information about the corona virus and aggressive lobbying influenced the WHO for not to declare the outbreak a global health emergency. China has denied these claims and some Chinese critics have accused the United States of manufacturing COVID-19 and unleashing it on the world. In response to the criticism and concerns, the WHO has called for national unity and international coordination to prevent the situation of preparing more ‘body bags” in the world. The WHO has issued number of policy guidance to the countries for adopting public health measures that achieve health protection while respecting human rights.
Nepali citizens living in country or living in other countries including middle east, Malaysia and India are facing enormous challenges. Supreme Court of Nepal has also ordered the Government of Nepal to adopt appropriate measures for the protection of Nepali citizens suffering in country and border area. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated SAARC Covid-19 emergency fund after digital conference with members including K.P. Sharma Oli, Prime Minister of Nepal and Chair of SAARC to the SAARC Secretariat. The human rights organizations and civil society organizations should be active in robust monitoring of the human rights situation to play the role of strong watchdog.
2. Key Human Rights Aspects
Public Emergency and Human Rights
International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. Human rights law recognizes that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application.
Right to Health
The right to health, as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides for the right to access healthcare, the right to access information, the prohibition of discrimination in the provision of medical services, the freedom from non-consensual medical treatment and other important guarantees. The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights including the rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, the prohibition against torture, privacy, access to information, and the freedoms of association, assembly and movement.
Access to Health Facilities
The medical systems of the hard-hit countries including the United States are now overwhelmed by COVID-19 pandemic, and medical facilities and health professionals are struggling to cope with the scale of the outbreak. Many patients are being turned away from hospitals after hours of queuing. Facilities do not have access to the necessary diagnostic test. This situation is particularly problematic in both developed and developed countries including the America and European countries.
Freedom of Movement
“Lockdown” or “Stay Home Order” is one of the common measures adopted by European, American and Asian countries affected by growing number of COVID-19 infections. The governments have been publicly appealing and asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement with aim of buying time and reducing pressure on health systems. Quarantines, which restrict the right to freedom of movement, may be justified under international law only if they are proportionate, time bound, undertaken for legitimate aims, strictly necessary, voluntary wherever possible and applied in a non-discriminatory way. Quarantines must be imposed in a safe and respectful manner. The rights of those under quarantine must be respected and protected, including ensuring access to health care, food and other necessities.
Racism, Xenophobia and Hate Speech
In response to the virus, many countries have closed their doors to those travelling from China or other Asian countries, while others have imposed strict quarantine measures. Similarly, there have also been widespread reports of anti-Chinese or anti-Asian xenophobia in other countries. Some restaurants in South Korea, Japan and Vietnam have refused to accept Chinese customers. In recent days, physical and verbal attacks against the Nepali community in England are becoming much more common. French and Australian newspapers have also been accused of racism in their reporting of the crisis. Governments must protect the minorities from xenophobia, hate speech and racism and provide timely and accurate health guidance.
Protection of Privacy
Protection of privacy and other human rights has been challenging due to alarming number of COVID-19 infections followed by growing number of deaths. The health departments of the affected countries such as Center for Disease Control (CDC) have wide-ranging powers in case of emergencies, including obtaining clinical specimens and data from persons affected by an outbreak, obtaining data from healthcare facilities, enforcing control measures including quarantine, and seizure or destruction of private property. While some of these measures might be needed to stop the spread of a virus, it is important that the principles of necessity and proportionality are at the front and center of response policies to guarantee the respect for human rights.
Viruses and pandemics do not care about a person’s legal, economic, or social status, but because of lack of human rights-based public health responses, crises will have differing impact on rich, privileged people as opposed to poor, disenfranchised populations. The search for an inclusive public health response and a more equitable and accessible healthcare system is even more urgent and important in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis-related messaging should be led by scientists with the assistance of government officials, not the other way around. The consequences of abusing public health threats like the COVID-19 for political purposes was demonstrated in many parts of the world. The misuse of the COVID-19 outbreak for political purposes is especially dangerous at this time when trust in the government and political institutions is at an all-time low and independence, objectivity, and usefulness of science and its ability to act in the public interest is divided along partisan lines.
Officials, as well as the public, have to recognize that those in quarantine or detention are in an extremely difficult situation. In addition to their medical state, they are often socially and economically vulnerable. The stigma that often accompanies quarantine and/or detention can lead to exclusion, emotional difficulties, and mental health issues. Similarly, loss of income or jobs can lead to short-term and long-term problems for affected people. For their part, governments should act to mitigate the negative consequences of public health policies and be aware of underlying socioeconomic conditions, potential human rights violations, and structural violence.
The public health policy responding to COVID-19 pandemic should address the identity and social inclusion considering cross-cutting issues of the society including gender, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, and other axes of identity vulnerability to epidemics. gendered care-giving burdens; and transferring public preparedness responsibilities to individuals and individual employers reinforces entrenched patterns of privilege and deprivation across social determinants of health.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated, “people who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus”; Governments must be able to provide adequate and transparent justification for the measures being taken to contain the virus and protect public health. Accountability and transparency also must apply to the private sector, from providers to industry, which is rapidly developing therapeutics and vaccines.
Respecting human rights in this crisis may provide an opportunity to see the value of truth and trust in democracy and human dignity. Therefore, human rights organization , media, civil society organizations and the National Human Rights Institutions(NHRIs) have to be both compliant with the measures taken by our governments but also be vigilant as to whether these measures are in line with international and national law and whether States are taking advantage of this pandemic to inch toward violations of human rights norms and values.
(* Surya Bahadur Deuja Surya Deuja is Human Rights Expert with more two decade long experiences the National Human Rights Institutions, the United Nations, and Non-Governmental Organizations. At present, Mr. Deuja has been living in New York and he can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)