Why Human Rights are so Important to Uphold During Times of Crisis
The Coronavirus is a widely impactful health crisis, which will see rippling social, economic and environmental effects for years to come. The effects of the pandemic on society are inextricably linked with human rights issues. In times like this, it is integral to ask how do we ensure human rights are enforced and protected, whilst also trying to tackle the pandemic in the most effective way possible? How do we uphold these standards in an equitable and transparent manner? There are a large number of equity implications as a result of the virus. Already, there has been an increase of racism and stigmatisation against the Asian population and those in prisons, jails and immigration centres coming under great pressure to invoke social distancing while in these spaces. Although the effects of the virus are not gendered, how it impacts men and women are differentiated. With women providing the majority of informal care, school closures may ultimately put the burden of childcare on women, particularly in the global South. Moreover, women’s omission from decision-making structures will lead to many of women’s sexual and reproductive needs being unmet. We have already witnessed examples of this, where globally, abortion services were suspended after being deemed ‘non-essential’ amidst a pandemic.
“How do we ensure human rights are enforced and protected, whilst also trying to tackle the pandemic in the most effective way possible?”
The crisis has also led to a justification of strict immigration policies, and monitoring of movement. While this global pandemic threatens the lives of many worldwide, particularly the most vulnerable, we must not let it compromise our human rights. Emergency measures should put human rights first so that we do not regress on what has already been done.
Border closures, travel restrictions and prohibitions on arrival from certain areas were among primary responses to the virus. In less than a week, these sparing travel bans have abruptly transformed into a sweeping shutdown of international travel, along with more aggressive restrictions of movements. Some countries — such as Portugal — are giving migrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights, granting them full access to healthcare as cases of the novel coronavirus accelerate. However, many states are implementing harsh and stringent measures that focus on the control of people and their movement. Greece, Hungary and Canada are among the many countries who are no longer accepting asylum seekers for the coming weeks, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Moreover, the US has witnessed a drastic decline in the number of migrants coming from Central America.
However, as countries close their borders to asylum seekers, wars continue to wage globally. The conflicts of the world still continue, despite the UN Secretary-General pleading for a global ceasefire. With so much at stake, one would assume that the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century to be enough to stop wars and pursue peace. Those who are already in Immigration centres, find themselves unable to adhere to the social distancing warnings, due to the overcrowded conditions, finding it harder to access preventive measures and adhere to social distancing warnings in overcrowded living conditions.
The multilateral consequences of the Coronavirus on the environment, economic issues and health will be long-lasting. Coronavirus — much like the effects of climate change- will undoubtedly have an effect on everyone. However, it is those in vulnerable situations who will disproportionately suffer most. In a time where the priorities of people should be put before profit, what we see is a form of corporate opportunism with environmental regulations being suspended in the US and China. Suspension of these regulations will not benefit but instead, reap a short term profit for corporations while creating long term consequences for many. Climate change is one of the biggest human rights issues we have ever had to face, and using the pandemic to further a capitalistic and exploitative agenda does not have the best interest of its people at heart. The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to rethink our work and our timelines, with the postponement of the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow. It is integral that this life-altering, game-changing global challenge is not put on the back burner. In fact, the ongoing pandemic illustrates how inequality is a major barrier in ensuring the health and wellbeing of people, and how social and economic inequality transpires in unequal access to healthcare systems. Even though climate change presents a slower, more long term health threat, it requires the same dramatic shift in behaviour. Environmental integrity is at the root of public health, and should not be skirted over in this time of crisis.
So how do we ensure that the rights and interests of the people are safeguarded going forward? The pandemic undoubtedly demands an unprecedented change in the way things have previously been run. It requires a complete shakedown of the ‘business as usual’ model that has been tolerated in the past. However, this does not condone a pullback on human rights. If we allow our rights to falter during such a groundbreaking time, then we are allowing the governments to put their needs before our own. As warned by a spokesperson for the programme ROMACTED — a programme aimed at empowering Roma citizens —
“the obligation to respect human rights cannot be suspended during such an unprecedented emergency situation”.
As the pandemic spreads its tentacles across the globe, we have witnessed world leaders downplaying the virus, displaying blatant racial discrimination and a disregard of the most vulnerable groups in society. The response of these world leaders has been disappointing, to say the least. Now more than ever, we must ensure that governments are serving the needs of its people. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and medical doctor Michelle Bachelet warns-
“COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought,”
We must recover by rebuilding towards an equitable, livable, future, using strategies of collective and compassionate solidarity. Now, more than ever, we need to centre our actions around justice, equity and empowerment for all. We are only as strong as the most vulnerable around us, and ensuring that we work toward an economy that puts people and the planet first, and adapts to the diverse needs of the most marginalised groups in society.