COVID-19 Pandemic: Human Rights in times of Crises

Early on during the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter and Instagram. It was quickly removed, and anyone using it blocked.

China’s move to initially cover up the crisis and restrict valuable public health information swelled online criticism of the government. The existing system of surveillance and censorship ramped up in response. But Chinese netizens fought back, substituting “sensitive words” for alternatives on a daily basis. At one point, images of pandas were used to represent the domestic security bureau, and “Ministry of Truth” (from George Orwell’s novel 1984) substituted for the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. Journalists, students, and activists developed a rapidly expanding alternative dictionary to keep ahead of the censors.

Censorship and surveillance in China are hardly news. Their impact during the current pandemic, however, highlights why the focus can’t simply be on expanding health services and enforcing quarantines by any means necessary.

An obligation to act

Governments are obligated to protect their citizens, and that does mean acting quickly to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many are turning to emergency powers to control the outbreak.

In Canada, our news coverage and social media seems almost exclusively dedicated to COVID-19 updates, focusing notably on countries not used to experiencing “emergencies”. Many people feel they are facing something unprecedented as their sense of security – both personal and national – is threatened. For others, this is yet another challenge added to day to day insecurity.

Crises often mean that those already in precarious situations are put at even greater risk. Think about how the public health advice you are hearing plays out in a community without access to clean water, basic sanitation or functioning medical centres – or a crowded living situation such as a prison, shelter or refugee camp. And while some among us focus on solidarity and support, others retreat and increasingly view the world as “us versus them”.

International human rights standards clarify that states of emergency must be publicly declared, time limited, proportionate, and tied to a specific set of circumstances. It’s not an excuse for a wide-ranging, indefinite crackdown. While temporary limits can be put on a range of rights – such as the right to association by limiting the size of gatherings – some protections can never be suspended, including freedom from discrimination, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and torture and ill-treatment.

Genuine security means protecting everyone’s human rights

It’s tempting but risky to talk about “balancing” rights. After the attacks in the USA on September 11, 2001 – an event increasingly referenced in light of significantly reduced international airline traffic — there was frequent debate about balancing security and human rights. But all too often that meant sacrificing the rights of some for the so-called security of others. Genuine security for everyone means putting human rights at the centre of our response. That is as true now as it was then.

Many countries are putting measures in place to prevent people’s exposure to COVID-19 including quarantines (individual and specific areas), travel restrictions and border closures. While obviously restricting freedom of movement, depending on how they are implemented, quarantines can create new and problematic barriers to food, water, shelter, sanitation, health care, education, and the ability to work. Border closures and travel restrictions can disrupt everything from the right to seek asylum to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Countries engaging in censorship and surveillance as part of their “response” aren’t just harassing activists, feeding suspicion or covering up. They are endangering lives. Access to information is a fundamental part of health care. It’s crucial during a pandemic when authorities are asking people to change their behaviour in order to slow the spread of the virus. And as new information becomes available, it needs to get into the hands of the right people. Responses are most effective when stakeholders can access accurate, timely information about the nature and extent of the crisis and plan together — globally, nationally and locally.

The guiding principle should always be to use the least restrictive measures possible, respect people’s right to dignity, and allow them as much control as possible over their lives. Excessive enforcement and monopolizing of resources not only causes disproportionate harm of those already vulnerable and marginalized, but it also undermines public trust and cooperation in the overall response to the crisis. That cooperation is needed between states as much as on an individual and community level. Governments with the means must help countries with fewer resources to prepare for and deal with any outbreaks. Production of a future vaccine and other innovative approaches must  not be turned into an exclusive enterprise.

Pay attention to racism, gender impact and inequality

Regardless of what triggers a state of emergency, authorities need to work to prevent stigma and discrimination. Since the start of the pandemic, people perceived to be from East Asia have been harassed, subjected to racist abuse, and attacked. Businesses have been boycotted. Social media has spread hateful words and images, and political leaders including the US President have referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”. Those who contract the virus or are suspected of infection, their families, and the health workers who treat them must not become a pariah class.

In previous health emergencies, women and girls have been particularly at risk. Women are often in care-giving roles, both in the informal sector and the health and social sector, making them at higher risk of exposure to illnesses. Gender inequality around health seeking and decision making remains a serious concern beyond the current pandemic. All response efforts should include a gender analysis to ensure that the rights of women, girls and gender non-conforming people are protected and that they receive appropriate support.

Long term view

As states of emergency end, the impact of the crisis often continues. Implementation of some measures may have deepened existing inequities and/or created new challenges. And some governments, of course, may have decided to take advantage of the situation and maintain a state of emergency for other repressive reasons. The pressure to “move on” may mount.

In the long term, areas most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic will need a wide range of support. International cooperation cannot wind down simply because the number of reported cases has dropped. Help will be needed to rebuild health systems and economies. Some groups and communities disproportionately affected may need special assistance.

Hopes are growing that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will open the door to much needed initiatives including global health care reform, gender equality, and strategies to address poverty and inadequate housing.

We are in it together

Those in Canada sharing internet memes about the shortage of hand sanitizer – pointing out that hoarders have forgotten that it’s only effective if we ALL can use it – are tapping into a bigger picture whether they know it or not. A pandemic reminds us how interconnected we are. Human rights give us framework for moving forward, together.

What you can do:

Distant but Together: Activism in the Time of COVID-19

Read more:

Responses to COVID-19 and State’s Human Rights Obligations: Preliminary Observations
Seven ways the Coronavirus Affects Human Rights (Feb 2020)
U.S. Border Closure is Cruel, Short-sighted, and Opportunistic (20 March 2020)
Egypt: Release prisoners of conscience and other prisoners at risk amid coronavirus outbreak (20 March 2020)
Qatar: Migrant workers in labour camps at grave risk amid COVID-19 crisis (20 March 2020)
Mitigate risks of Covid-19 for Jammu and Kashmir by immediately restoring full access to internet services (19 March 20202)