Another Pandemic? Covid-19’s Human Rights Abuses and How Best to Respond

By Jemma Clarke

Photo by Matteo Jorjoson on Unsplash

From the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, states and societies have faced a vast array of challenges. It has deepened and exasperated many pre-existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and divides. Much more than just a public health emergency, it has also created what UN Secretary-General António Guterres named “a pandemic of human rights abuses”. As we emerge from the pandemic, recovery and response should not only focus on preventing the spread of the virus or distributing vaccines but rather also should look to tackle the underlying factors that have worsened pre-existing inequalities. Human rights must be at the forefront of the framework, and a human rights-based approach is essential.

António Guterres has emphasised that cooperation and solidarity must be at the centre of an effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that approaches and methods “must have a human rights lens”. Such a rights-based approach is not new, emerging some 20 years ago. It is defined by the UN as “a conceptual framework for the processes of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights,”. It involves making sure that no one is left behind and places rights holders as the primary actors in decision-making processes. Amnesty International has emphasised the necessity for actions to be grounded in such a framework.

The objective to “leave no one behind” was adopted in 2015 by all UN member states as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously hindered achieving this goal. Gender equality has “been set back decades” since the start of the pandemic, with women comprising the majority of frontline workers, and taking on most of the increased duty of care in the home. Violence against women has also dramatically risen. Responses by governments towards the pandemic have disproportionately affected certain groups of people, including detainees, refugees, ethnic minority groups, disabled people, and elderly citizens across the world. In many different cases across the world, this has included breaches of human rights.

This includes rights regarding free speech. The Human Rights Watch documented that over 80 governments have used Covid-19 as an excuse to stifle dissent, restrict free speech, and repress peaceful protests. This is especially notable in authoritarian regimes. For example, it has been reported that in China there have been significant amounts of censors blocking information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese social media was found to have blocked neutral, speculative, and factual information about COVID-19. This ultimately produces misinformation and limits the effectiveness of public response and general awareness.

Furthermore, misinformation and disinformation campaigns have included concealing access to life-saving information, even by political leaders. One notable example is the former president of Tanzania, John Magufuli. Throughout his time in office, up until his death in March earlier this year, Magufuli was a staunch anti-vaxxer. He declared in July 2020 that “Corona in our country has been removed by the powers of God,”. He praised people for not wearing face masks, asserted that Covid is a hoax, and dismissed and rejected vaccinations. Given that Magufuli refused to recognise COVID-19 as a ‘real’ issue, no official information was released since May 2020, at which point only 20 deaths were reported. Tanzania has a population of around 60 million, and yet the World Health Organisation has only 725 deaths recorded to date: a remarkably small percentage of the population. Tanzanian doctors noted increased numbers of patients with symptoms of Covid-19, but they were unable to record these figures. As a result of underreporting and a serious lack of reliable, official data, it is fair to conclude the Magufuli’s leadership and legacy failed the people of Tanzania.

Guterres’ Call to Action for Human Rights outlined a framework on how to counter issues of restricted free speech, censorship and misinformation with human rights at the centre. Some methods include the creation of guidance on human rights due diligence on technology products and related policies to ensure they are not used for censorship, surveillance or repression; supporting more systematic participation of civil society in UN agencies and bodies; and general advocacy for the protection and promotion of human rights in digital spaces.

There have also been examples of human rights breaches in Western countries, including in the UK. Several studies have shown that marginalised groups and individuals, including the disabled and elderly, have been disproportionally affected and particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the pandemic. This includes experiencing human rights abuses and violations which can result in psychological distress. A report by the Joint Commission on Human Rights in May 2021 revealed that for those in care homes, official guidance prioritised Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the duty to protect residents’ right to life, above ECHR Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life. This led to many reports of resulting rapid declines in mental and physical health. Amnesty International emphasised these “devasting” effects and the human rights violations in elderly care homes in England caused by the UK. Reports noted that increased social isolation as in the case of lockdowns and curfews caused “significant adverse psychological effects”, and exacerbated sleeping problems for the elderly.

Likewise, people with disabilities have also faced increased isolation from the pandemic, and have struggled to get the support they need. This similarly has had a negative psychological impact. Many disabled people are also at increased risk to Covid-19. The Office of National Statistics published in November 2020 that disabled people made up 59% of Covid-19 deaths, which considering they make up only about 16% of the UK population, is a highly disproportional and shocking figure. While the Government must protect lives, they also have a duty to protect and maintain their right to family and prevent vulnerable individuals from being isolated and excluded. Unfortunately, exclusion and isolation has pre-existed the pandemic. Therefore, larger-scale work and actions are needed. Change can most effectively be achieved by placing human rights at the forefront of policies, ensuring marginalised and vulnerable individuals are involved in discussions, and that their needs are listened to and acted upon.

Ultimately, a human rights-based approach should be at the heart of our response to the virus and the pre-existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by the virus. We are in a unique situation that offers us the opportunity, as stressed by Guterres, to “ensure human rights for all,”. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to ignore.

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