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Let's Talk Human Rights

Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19

By The Human Rights Center Team

Here are the HRC’s top 12 human rights dimensions of the pandemic from the perspective of human rights advocacy and practice, and grounded in our location in Dayton, Ohio in the United States:

Rights in Crisis 

1. In times of crisis, the critical role that governments play to protect, promote and ensure the enjoyment of human rights becomes more visible and immediate. In declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic recently, the World Health Organization’s Secretary-General expressed deep concern not just about the alarming levels of spread and severity of the virus, but also about “the alarming levels of inaction” of many countries. While government action and global cooperation is essential, human rights also place limits on what is acceptable in times of crisis. Human rights experts recently reminded all governments that while emergency declarations can be appropriate, they “should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals.” Restrictions should be tailored to meet core public health objectives and not used as cover for quashing dissent. In the US, the Trump administration’s plan to exclude refugees and migrants at the southern border due to the COVID-19 pandemic raises precisely these concerns.

The Right to Health is Far-Reaching 

2. The right to health is a fundamental human right, and also a wide-ranging one, secured by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It affords a number of entitlements that governments are obliged to provide, many of which are relevant to this crisis. These include equal access to quality health care; prevention, treatment and control of diseases; access to essential medicines, as well as health education and information; and a right to participate in health-related decision-making. The actions taken to prevent contagion and spread of COVID-19 should be crafted to preserve and protect health care systems for persons requiring regular medical care. It is equally vital to ensure that all people have access to free testing and care related to the virus. In the US and throughout the world, many health care systems do not recognize a basic right to health care for all.  

3. Our human right to the highest attainment of physical and mental health includes and is linked to other social and economic rights, particularly the right to safe food, adequate nutrition and housing, and safe drinking water and sanitation. Governments are responsible for ensuring that everyone enjoys these rights equally and without discrimination. Actions like those taken by Dayton city leaders and businesses to suspend eviction cases, halt water shutoffs and pause disconnections of electricity accord with these requirements. But further proactive measures are needed to ensure vulnerable individuals are able to enjoy these rights throughout the pandemic. 

4. Social distancing, work disruptions, school closures, and restrictions on public engagement will have impacts on the mental health of potentially millions of people globally. Both individual and government action are required to maintain mental health and resilience, and to address increased stress on those with pre-existing mental health issues. Moreover, the current pandemic will likely aggravate existing high rates of violence in societies targeted at vulnerable groups, particularly women. Worldwide, one in three women experiences physical, sexual or emotional violence in her lifetime; one in five experiences rape or attempted rape. Studies indicate that in times of crisis, violence against women becomes more rather than less pervasive. 

The Vulnerable are at Greatest Risk

5. In crisis situations, individuals and groups who are already in vulnerable situations are the most likely to be negatively impacted. These are often the least visible and most marginalized groups in societies, such as sex workers, prisoners, refugees and migrants, persons with disabilities and chronic illness, and children living in poverty. In the case of COVID-19,  the elderly, along with those with chronic health issues, are at the highest risk of death from the virus. Because of their vulnerability and elevated risk, protections for these groups require special attention. For example, advocates are calling for authorities in the US, as is being demonstrated in Iran, to release as many prisoners and detainees as possible to prevent the spread of illness in prisons. 

6. Children by virtue of their particular vulnerability and progressive stages of human development have a specific set of rights, including the right to education. In the US, over 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that provides low-cost or no-cost meals to children on school days. About 1 in 30 youth aged 13-17 experience homelessness in a given 12 month period and are especially reliant on federally funded food programs. The closing of schools throughout the US and in other countries raises considerable challenges to securing children’s rights.    

Economic Justice and Workers Rights 

7. The crisis is taking an unprecedented toll on the economy, businesses, and jobs. With increasingly restrictive measures on public life, mass shutdowns of schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters and other service businesses will impact large numbers of workers and families. Everyone has the right to work in just and favourable conditions and expansive norms exist to ensure workers’ rights. During this crisis, governments must take action to support workers who experience furloughs or unemployment due to social distancing policies. The current unprecedented situation likewise highlights the need for paid sick leave and accommodations for workers with caregiving responsibilities for children and elderly persons.

8. On the frontline of society’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic are caregivers, health and medical workers, sanitation, transport and grocery workers and other first responders. This form of work is essential to controlling the spread of the disease and ensuring the life, safety and health of all. These men and women and their families carry the highest burden in the response, and thus ensuring their safety and protection in the course of their work should be paramount.

Gender is Key but too Easily Forgotten 

9. It is clear that burdens of this crisis will be shared and carried differently by men and women, based on their gendered roles and positions in society. As a consequence, women, who are disproportionately caregivers, are likely to make a substantial difference in the effectiveness of responses. A gendered analysis of the impact of the pandemic is needed to ensure that any differential impact is taken into account and that policies ensure equity in outcomes, as required by human rights norms.

Discriminatory Rhetoric and Action 

10. With the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, the US and other countries have experienced dangerous rhetoric and incidents of discrimination, bias, and racial or other identity profiling based on assumptions about who carries the coronavirus. The freedom from discrimination and the right to equality lies at the core of human rights and human dignity. When such sentiments come from those in government, it should particularly put us on notice for the possibility that rhetoric could morph into policies of exclusion or violence.

A Call for Global Solidarity 

11. Uncertainty and fear can bring out the worst in people and exacerbate divisions within communities. Hoarding and price gouging, as well as social isolation, place others at greater risk by siphoning off resources and support. The Catholic and Marianist tradition compels us to think about community not merely in a physical or place-based sense but in terms of global solidarity. It calls on all of us to appreciate the interrelatedness of humanity and to reflect on the ramifications of all our actions on others, particularly those who are most vulnerable and fragile. Many people are volunteering to help their elderly neighbors and to offer food and services to those in need. A new term “caremongering’ has emerged in the discourse. At the same time, reports suggest that there are increases in gun sales, and hoarding of medical supplies and other essentials in the US. These developments are profoundly concerning. 

The Challenge of Balancing Rights

12. During this crisis, our civil and political rights to assembly, expression, worship, privacy and participation in self-governance are likely to be tested in various ways. Social media platforms are currently struggling to create policies for restricting misleading posts about COVID-19 or effective health responses. Traditional media outlets have been blamed for creating panic around the virus, even as governments rely on media partners to convey up-to-date information. Over the past week, several states chose to go ahead with primary elections despite public health concerns, while Ohio used a public health justification to postpone planned polls. In this context, transparency in all government and public decision-making, and robust protections for media freedom remain essential to effectively monitoring compliance with all human rights norms.

Key Takeaways

If anything, this crisis demonstrates the interdependence of human rights across national borders and throughout the economic, social, cultural, civil and political spectrum. It exposes systems that fail to secure equal human rights for all. For those in the US, it spotlights the weaknesses of our nation’s traditional disregard for economic, social and cultural rights both globally and for its own people. For the over 1.5 billion people who live in conflict and fragile countries, an effective response to the virus will be severely challenged by and compound dire humanitarian needs and debilitated health systems, resulting in extreme devastation and loss of life.  

In the context of a rolling and unpredictable crisis, human rights advocates must remain vigilant of infringements undertaken in the name of public health or national security. How might, for instance, social distancing or “shelter in place” restrictions be used to prohibit assembly or protest? What could be the implications of the Department of Justice’s seeking Congressional authority to suspend certain basic constitutional rights, including habeas corpus? 

The tension between individual rights and collective welfare is exacerbated during moments of crisis. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides “In time of public emergency which threatens the life [and existence] of the nation” certain obligations can justifiably be sidestepped, while other rights remain non-derogable. To ensure that this balance is respected, we must recommit ourselves to serve the critical function of monitoring state action, advising and advocating with state and other authorities, and preserving norms that protect human dignity. 

And while it is of utmost concern to return humanity to a sense of safety, security and global health, the crisis has disrupted many ways of human life that might ultimately be acknowledged as unjust and unsustainable for a future on planet earth. In 2015, all countries agreed to a universal and interlinked agenda for sustainable development (Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals), grounded in human rights and aimed to secure a just, peaceful and inclusive world for current and future generations. When this crisis passes, as we all hope it will, a time for reflection to rejuvenate and recalibrate our shared institutions, practices, commitments and norms should succeed it. 


As the COVID-19 pandemic changes daily, watch this space for additional news, reflections and updates.

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