This week the HRC Blog editorial team has been looking at specific areas of rights affected by the accelerating spread of coronavirus around the world. The challenges we are facing are unprecedented in our lifetimes and after being asked to self-limit our freedoms, the UK Prime Minister went a step further on Monday by ‘instructing’ the British public to stay at home’.
Right to Health
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights obligates states to take steps towards ensuring the full realization of the right to physical and mental health for all.
In countries where no public healthcare system is in place, for instance the United States, the disparity in health becomes more apparent, with individuals from lower socio-economic classes being disproportionately affected. In the USA, 28.6 million people are not covered by any form of health insurance. According to the World Health Organisation, although the majority infected will recover and not need any treatment, 1 in 6 people will become severely ill and will require emergency medical attention, something that many fear they will be unable to afford.
In addition, the fast-spreading nature of coronavirus has led to the overburdening of even the most robust public healthcare systems. Italy’s healthcare system, considered one of the best in the world, has been stretched beyond its capacity. As a result of the lack of resources available, compared to demand, doctors have been forced to make decisions about treatment priorities, based on who has the best chance of survival.
The number of cases in the United Kingdom has been following a similar trajectory to that of Italy and within two to three weeks is expected to be facing the same difficult dilemmas in the NHS. With the NHS still yet to recover from austerity measures, the right to health will be stretched to the limit with the steadily increasing pressure of the pandemic.
Freedom of information
Enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the right to freedom of expression, which includes the ‘right to …receive and impart information…’ and this is particularly important during a time of global crisis, when events are fast moving and advice is changing on a daily basis.
In Ethiopia, the Government is using the internet and telephone services to raise awareness about the spread of coronavirus. However, many people are not getting the messages because the Government has shut down these services in areas of military operation against rebel forces, and is refusing to reconnect them. This is leaving communities unaware and vulnerable.
North Korea, meanwhile is withholding the release of figures of those affected by COVID-19 and a source has reported that deaths likely to have been from COVID-19 are being classified as pneumonia and quickly cremated to avoid scrutiny.
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has attacked what he calls media hysteria, and labelled coronavirus just “a little flu”, claiming that citizens were being “tricked”. He also criticised officials in some Brazilian states who are taking the pandemic seriously by imposing lockdowns, dismissing such measures as unnecessary.
With fake news and conspiracy theories spreading faster than the virus, accurate and trusted information is critical during this crisis. ‘The Conversation’, an independent source of information from the academic and research community, talks about how to tell fact from fiction.
Right to Water and Sanitation
March 22 was World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to celebrate progress towards the goal of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all. However, at a time when water supplies are increasingly threatened by climate change, overuse, and pollution, the coronavirus has highlighted the immense work that still needs to be done.
Ensuring the human right to water and sanitation – a right recognized by the United Nations through Resolution 64/292 and derived from Arts. 11 and 12 of the ICESCR (as per General Comment No. 15) – is thus critical in preventing the exposure and spread of COVID-19.
“Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently” is one of the key instructions experts are giving to reduce the risk of becoming infected with coronavirus. The World Health Organization notes that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are the first lines of defense against infectious disease outbreaks such as COVID-19. But what if you are one of the 780 million people who lack access to an improved water source, 3 billion who lack basic handwashing facilities, or over half of the world’s population that does not have access to safe sanitation services?
Examples of groups that are disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation, and thus more susceptible to contracting coronavirus include prison populations, the homeless, households facing water shutoffs, and 30% of the world’s urban population living in overcrowded areas, in shanty-towns, or slum-like conditions. With this in mind, states must prioritize efforts to ensure the additional needs and rights of already marginalized and vulnerable groups are being considered.
Rights for those living in refugee camps
As Europe is hit hard by the outbreak of COVID-19, Greece faces the potential impact on refugee camps. Social distancing and self-isolation are a luxury not available to those living in overcrowded camps, and the spread of the virus in such poor sanitary conditions, without access to vital healthcare services is deeply troubling. The only medical provision available is through NGOs and voluntary groups.
Many have called for the evacuation of the camps, MSF highlighting the lack of a ‘credible emergency plan’, stating that it would be impossible to prevent infection, given the cramped conditions.
Awareness campaigns have begun in camps on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, to reinforce the hygiene and hand-washing message with NGOs working tirelessly to mitigate against the spread of the outbreak; four Afghan women have set up a space to make face masks in the Moira camp and hand sanitisers have been taped to trees outside the Vathy camp. The Greek government has introduced a lockdown in refugee camps from 7pm-7am but restrictions on movement have been criticised as ‘discriminatory’ as they do not apply to the residents of the islands.
UNHCR has also raised concerns over travel bans and how they may block the right to seek asylum. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that state measures to restrict travel should not lead to the prohibition of refoulement. “In these challenging times, let us not forget those who are fleeing war and persecution. They need..solidarity and compassion now more than ever before.” That solidarity is now being called for by the UN, who issued an appeal for over $1.5 billion in funding to prepare for outbreaks in refugees and conflict areas
In the words of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Director General, Guy Ryder, the coronavirus crisis is “no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people”. The ILO are urging swift action by leaders to protect workers and stimulate economies, as low-income families and small businesses, in even the most developed nations, face the strain of increasing economic issues.
The right to work is enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) but millions around the world are now faced with a stark choice between health and income. United States Labour Department data from 2019 shows that 29% of workers have no access to paid sick leave, which ‘places an undue burden on poor and marginalized workers’. The US Government have now introduced a Coronavirus Law , which provides some relief to smaller businesses but does not apply to 48% of American workers who work for larger organisations.
The U.K. Government has pledged to help businesses by covering 80% of their workers’ salaries for at least the next three months. However, the Government is coming under increasing pressure to support the self-employed along similar lines.
Germany is expanding its Kurzarbeit (short term work) System, described by the Finance Minister as a big “bazooka”, created during the 2008 financial crisis. The scheme will pay roughly two-thirds of an employee’s salary to keep people in work and maintain their skill levels.
Other stories making the news around the world
- High street stores challenged on human rights disclosures (Financial Times)
- WHO launches campaign on World TB Day (WHO)
- Medicins Sans Frontiere concerned about those with tuberculosis contracting COVID-19 Relief Web
- On 21st March, South Africa marked Human Rights Day amid calls for them to end abuses against asylum seekers (Human Rights Watch)
- Human Rights Watch and Belady reveal disappearances and torture of children by Egyptian security forces (Human Rights Watch)
- Medics in iran forced to work without protective clothing (The Independent)
- Amnesty International concerned about the first executions in India in 5 years (Amnesty International)
- UN asks for sanctions on Iran to be lifted as countries fight coronavirus (UN News)
- UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants raises concerns about the ‘pushback’ of asylum seekers at the Turkey/Greece border (UN News)
- Further steps are necessary to protect the health of prisoners in Italy (Human Rights Watch)
- The UN welcomes the humanitarian pause by warring parties in Libya (UN News)
- Two Red Crescent humanitarian aid workers killed in Yemen (Al Jazeera)
- Concerns rise as war-battled Syria reports their first case of COVID-19 (Al Jazeera)
- Trudeau reverses position on open immigration policy, turning asylum seekers away who enter through unofficial border crossings from the USA (New York Times)
- US Secretary of State threatens International Criminal Court after prosecutor opens investigation into abuses by US troops in Afghanistan (Human Rights Watch)
South and South-east Asia