Centring human rights in an age of COVID-19

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By Amanda Quest

On Thursday, December 10, the international community celebrated Human Rights Day under the theme ‘Recover Better: Stand Up for Human Rights’. Given the exceptional times in which we live in today’s world, courtesy of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the importance of prioritising the promotion and protection of human rights cannot be overstated.

The pandemic, which the World Health Organization (WHO) director general recently described as the “most severe” public emergency it has ever faced, has produced many casualties of a varied nature. Chief among these casualties are human lives (over one and a half million of which have been lost), food security, the effective functionality of many health care systems which are now severely overburdened due to the seemingly incessant surge in COVID-19 cases globally, jobs, and, in some countries, the meaningful enjoyment of certain fundamental human rights.

In addition, the pandemic has widened existing social and economic cleavages between privileged groups and vulnerable groups — among them people living with HIV, persons with disabilities, refugees, sexual minorities, women, children, indigenous peoples, and the elderly persons — who grapple with persistent issues of discrimination, inequality of treatment, and social exclusion.

Individuals who have contracted the coronavirus, or who are suspected of having contracted the virus, are increasingly being subjected to discrimination, stigmatisation, and inhumane treatment. And the continued economic insecurity and movement restrictions occasioned by the pandemic have contributed to increased rates of violence against women worldwide (UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women 2020).

In an attempt to respond decisively to the pandemic, governments across the world have implemented a series of unprecedented measures which have circumscribed, to varying degrees, the enjoyment of such fundamental rights as those to freedom of movement, public assembly, liberty and security of the person, due process, and access to justice. As well, in other countries, the political directorates have taken the approach of augmenting their executive powers, by various means, presumably in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

Perhaps the most extreme exemplification of the latter approach is best seen in the case of Hungary, where in March of this year the incumbent, Vicktor Orban-led Administration introduced controversial emergency legislation, which effectively clothed it with sweeping magisterial-esque powers. Under this emergency legislation, the Orban Government is empowered to, among other things, suspend existing legislation, and effectively create laws by executive decree. The emergency legislation also effectively shields exceptional measures implemented by that Administration from parliamentary scrutiny.

These realities highlight that, even amidst a pandemic, which has already left so much human suffering in its wake, the meaningful enjoyment of human rights is under severe threat across the globe. It is therefore critical that, in managing and working to recover from the crisis, people — and their rights — must be front and centre.

The very relevant and timely theme, ‘Recover Better: Stand Up For Human Rights’, exhorts governments, policymakers, parliamentarians, businesses, and other decision-makers to centre human rights in recovery efforts. Under the generic call to action ‘Stand Up For Human Rights’, the United Nations (UN) aims to “engage the general public, [its] partners, and the UN family to bolster transformative action and showcase practical and inspirational examples that can contribute to recovering better and fostering more resilient and just societies”.

For many societies that will present an undertaking of Herculean proportions given the fiscal and economic insecurity with which the world at large is now grappling due to the multifaceted effects of the pandemic. However, where there is a will — and, in particular, political will — a way will be found.

The varied impacts of the pandemic have at once highlighting and exacerbating long-standing issues of inequality and social injustice which continue to plague many societies. Centring human rights in efforts to recover from the pandemic is therefore imperative if we are to “recover better” and “foster more resilient and just societies”. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the organisation’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres very recently pointed out, are “…underpinned by human rights [and] provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”.

While the pandemic itself has caused inestimable pain, suffering, and loss for so many across the globe, it presents an opportunity to reorder and reconfigure the social and economic fabric of societies in which the needs and concerns of specific vulnerable groups have long been marginalised or altogether “invisbilised”.

What, then, should a post-COVID-19 society look like? What do we want it to look like? How can we ensure that, in the process of attempting to rebuild and “recover better” from the pandemic, no one — and particularly those who have been affected disproportionately and hit hardest by the pandemic — gets left behind? These are just a few of the many questions which should not escape careful consideration if efforts to recover better from the pandemic are to be human rights centred.

Centring human rights in recovery efforts means that they should meaningfully include and be responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable in a way that seeks to empower, rather than disempower, patronise, or further “other” them. Everyone’s voice should be heard and considered in the process as “[w]e are all born free and equal in dignity and rights”, regardless of our individual station in life.

The universal nature of the declared global health crisis currently afflicting the human race, together with its non-discriminatory reach, mean that while we are not all affected in the same way, or to the same extent, by the pandemic, we are still technically “…all in this together”. (jamaicaobserver)

(Amanda Quest is a youth and human rights advocate with a legal background.)

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