Human rights must remain at the heart of our response to coronavirus crisis

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star., March 19, 2020.

Amidst the uncertainty and fear that has taken hold globally as the scope and impact of the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve, we cannot lose sight that human rights principles are essential to all aspects of this crisis.

And already people everywhere are responding in ways that resonate with the universal human rights vision, through compassion, community and putting others first.

As many of us hunker down in the safety of our homes, health care, transportation, grocery store, sanitation and other workers head out to ensure that we are supported.

More broadly, people are looking out for friends and neighbours, and are refraining from actions that may put others at risk or impede efforts to contain the pandemic. That starts with the simple act of staying home and getting out of the way of the virus.

It might be tempting to assume that human rights advocates are preparing to decry that restrictive measures being adopted by governments in Canada and around the world are impermissible, but it’s not so simple.

The necessity for governments to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is itself a crucial human rights responsibility, including upholding the rights to health and to life. Government failure to act decisively would be a grave human rights concern.

Clearly, many of the measures being adopted infringe, often onerously, a range of crucial human rights. That includes the rights to education and a livelihood, and to freedom of movement, association and assembly. Rights are being violated by school closures, border closings and travel bans, shutting down restaurants and other businesses, and limitations on gatherings of specified numbers of people.

International human rights treaties recognize that governments may need to limit those rights for exceptional reasons, including public health. Those restrictions are not necessarily contrary to upholding human rights. They are part of the human rights package, if done right.

There are, nonetheless, vital human rights imperatives that apply.

First, the power of governments to encroach upon human rights in a time of emergency is no carte blanche. Restrictions must be necessary, proportionate, legitimate, time-limited and no broader than strictly needed. Very importantly, limits cannot be discriminatory. And certain rights, such as the right to life, the ban on torture and the freedom of religion can never be abridged. Through public transparency, media coverage and political debate we must all be vigilant that restrictions meet those requirements.

Second, care must be taken to respond to heightened vulnerability faced by particular communities, be that related to the pandemic itself or restrictions that are put in place. An intersectional gender analysis is crucial.

Measures of self-isolation and quarantine may substantially increase the risk of violence and abuse in the home for women and children. Indigenous leaders have noted how devastating a COVID-19 outbreak would be in isolated First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. There are concerns the virus may spread rapidly in jails and immigration detention centres, whose populations are disproportionately made up of Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities. Border bans may run afoul of international obligations with respect to refugees and migrant workers. The increased risks for people living with disabilities, precariously employed workers and homeless people are all urgently apparent. These and other urgent human rights realities require close attention.

Third, international cooperation is essential. With nations everywhere shutting down and looking inward, it has never been as urgent to demonstrate global solidarity. We have the good fortune of living in a country with a sophisticated, publicly funded health-care system. That is not a universal reality. Sharing information, expertise and resources is vital at this time.

Fourth, there can be no space for racism. Social media streams have been full of heartbreaking reminders of how easily this happens, including hateful comments in playgrounds and President Trump’s frequent labelling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” If you hear it, call it out and shut it down.

Finally, there will be important long-term human rights work coming out of this crisis. A post-COVID-19 human rights agenda is already starting to emerge, including global health-care reform, gender equality, addressing poverty and inadequate housing, and crucial lessons with respect to the rights of Indigenous peoples, environmental sustainability and the climate crisis.

The bottom line? Human rights are our best guide through this crisis, and must be embraced in its aftermath.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.