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COVID-19 and Human Rights: The Virus Does Not Discriminate, Its Impacts Do

UNSG Antonio Guterres: The global pandemic has exposed deep inequalities as well as violation of human rights, especially of those who are most vulnerable.

Street Scene in NYC. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

People living in poverty, homeless people, people with disabilities and in institutions, people in detention, indigenous communities, migrants and asylum seekers all face additional challenges in protecting themselves and accessing treatment.

On April 23rd, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a video address on COVID-19 and human rights. The UN Chief underlined that the COVID-19 pandemic now represents not only a global public health emergency, but also an economic crisis, a social crisis, and is fast becoming a human rights crisis. During what Guterres previously described as the biggest international crisis in generations, “Human rights cannot be an afterthought,” he says. “People — and their rights — must be front and centre.”

The very first human right that needs to be ensured in order to tackle the crisis, as Guterres put it, is the “imperative of healthcare for everyone.” Indeed, most governments have ratified treaties which require them to guarantee the right to health to everyone. This right includes, among other things, an obligation for the government to take all steps necessary for the prevention, treatment and control of diseases. This means that governments must, in the context of a pandemic, ensure availability of preventive care, goods and services to everybody.

According to Amnesty International, about 70% of low-income families in Hong Kong could not afford to buy protective equipment recommended by the government such as masks and disinfectant. In the US, as Human Rights Watch reports, millions of people are uninsured and unable to get state-funded health care. Moreover, medical treatment for the coronavirus costs more than many people, even with health insurance, can afford; this forces many to choose between seeking care or risking bankruptcy.

At the same time, the world is not free from good examples as well. The Portuguese government, for instance, has decided to treat people with pending residency and asylum applications as if they were permanent residents, giving them equal access to national health care. Similarly, Italy extended all residence permits due to expire until mid-June. 

What this global pandemic has shown, says Guterres, is that “the virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do.” Indeed, the global pandemic has exposed deep structural inequalities that impede access to public services to certain groups of the population and thus makes those groups more vulnerable. People living in poverty, homeless people, people with disabilities and in institutions, people in detention, indigenous communities, migrants and asylum seekers, all face additional challenges in protecting themselves and accessing treatment. In Lebanon, for example, the government introduced curfews and restrictions on movement on Syrian refugees. In Nigeria, people with mental health conditions in facilities remain shackled.

The coronavirus not only exposes inequalities, it also perpetrates them. Research suggests that not only those in lower economic classes are more likely to catch the disease and die from it, but even those who remain healthy are likelier to suffer loss of income or healthcare as a result of quarantines and other measures.

Another tendency emerged during the pandemic.  Guterres pointed to the rise of hate speech targeting vulnerable groups and undermining their rights to information and access to healthcare along with everybody else. People in Wuhan have faced widespread discrimination and harassment in China, their own country. Many countries reported a rise in anti-Chinese or anti-Asian xenophobia both in the streets and online. Hate speech and anti-Asian assaults became so widespread as to initiate a movement to combat racism and xenophobia, #hateisavirus, that reached more than 4 million people on social media and inspired influencers to join the cause. 

Another issue lies in the fact that, as Guterres stated, “the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.” According to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights data, at least 84 countries have imposed a state of emergency and implemented extraordinary policies and measures due to the COVID-19 crisis. Fewer than 20% of those countries, however, have formally informed the UN of derogations from their human rights obligations.

Measures such as border closures, heavy policing, and utilization of mass digital surveillance, once classified as dangerous expansions of state power, are now being applauded as necessary to curb the pandemic. With the passage of a law at the beginning of April effectively removing any oversight and silencing any criticism of the Hungarian government, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán became entitled to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. Other countries taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to strengthen their authoritarian rule include China, Russia, Turkey and Israel. 

In such a situation, Guterres affirms, “Governments must be transparent, responsive and accountable.” Freedom of the press and the right to information are critical for citizens to get access to reliable, uncensored, and timely information. Many countries, including the aforementioned China, Russia, and Hungary, but also the United States, Brazil, Egypt, Myanmar, and many others, have been guilty of censorship, denialism, or persecution of journalists and whistleblowers. 

In a state of emergency, Guterres says, “We must ensure that any emergency measures … are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.” The virus is threatening, but human rights are uplifting. Thus, “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,” concludes the UN Chief. 

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