Should Human Rights Matter in a Pandemic?
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 3,949,213 people with at least 271,782 fatalities. On March 11th, the World Health Organization announced that the virus was a pandemic. The coronavirus poses a threat to global health and to upholding human rights. The right to health is not the only human right that is threatened. Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia Director at Amnesty International, states that “censorship, discrimination, arbitrary detention and human rights violations have no place in the fight against the coronavirus [pandemic].” He adds that “human rights violations hinder, rather than facilitate, responses to public health emergencies and undercut their efficiency.”
Right to Health
Individuals around the world are encountering impediments to their right to health. Patients in the U.S. are facing high medical bills for treatment of the virus and some have suggested that high costs may persuade individuals to avoid testing and treatment. While Congress has passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, it only covers testing and not the cost of treatment. Iran is also facing difficulty curtailing the spread of coronavirus with critical shortages of medical supplies partly due to U.S. sanctions. The U.S. has faced similar shortages of critical medical supplies. There have also been reports in Italy of hospitals struggling with a limited capacity, no longer being able to effectively treat all COVID-19 patients. Similar concerns of hospital capacity are now being echoed in the U.S. as it quickly becomes the country with the highest number of cases. Without effective access to health, the threat of the virus is heightened.
The Chinese government announced the outbreak of coronavirus sooner than they had with SARS in 2003. However, the Chinese government has continued to utilize censorship with regard to the coronavirus outbreak similar to their prior handling of SARS signifying that lessons have not been learned. China’s censorship tactics include redacting local news reports and social media in an attempt to suppress information and to control the narrative of the outbreak. However, China is not the only country employing tactics of censorship. Recent reports reveal that Turkmenistan has banned outright all use of the term coronavirus, further claiming that no cases of the virus exist in the country. Efforts to suppress information regarding the virus are counterproductive and governments should adopt a policy of transparency. Governments must encourage open and prompt reporting, without suppressing freedom of speech.
The virus has spurred fear leading to global anti-China sentiments and xenophobic attacks. In the U.S., some have claimed that discrimination is spreading faster than the coronavirus itself. Hundreds of hate crimes have been reported in California alone related to the coronavirus. That doesn’t count incidents that have gone unreported. Governments should protect individuals from discriminatory targeting. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has notified the public on ways to combat the stigma surrounding the virus by focusing on the facts. However, these public statements will have little effect considering the U.S.’s inability to be unified on its handling of discrimination. For example, President Trump’s portrayal of the virus as the “Chinese virus” may directly contribute to further discrimination. The discriminatory attacks are not limited to the U.S., rather it is a global concern.
However, it is important to note that cases of discrimination are not limited to those of Asian descent. Iran’s struggle amid COVID-19 has intensified anti-Shiite prejudice and discrimination. In India, there have been reports that the caste and class system may disproportionately impact marginalized sections of society. Of course, the virus itself does not discriminate. It is of dire importance that governments stress that once COVID-19 enters a country it poses a threat to every person regardless of their nationality, religion, or ethnicity.
Arbitrary detention has generated serious concerns for human rights defenders around the globe. International law grants governments permission to infringe on civil and political rights for the purpose of public health. During the SARS epidemic, David Fidler, an adjunct senior fellow for cybersecurity and global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, stated that although isolation and quarantine measures are permitted under international human rights law, they must meet certain conditions. Stipulations include that quarantine must be non-discriminatory in its application, relate to public interests through its risk to public health, be necessary to protect the public, and be evidence-based.
Some have posited that the draconian measures of arbitrary detention in China have been highly effective in combating the spread of the virus, however, the cost to human rights cannot be understated. There have been reports of individuals in China being quarantined indefinitely after being critical of the government’s handling of the virus, suggesting unlawful arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns over arbitrary detentions in Cambodia, where the government has employed policies allegedly meant to combat fake news as a means of silencing those who speak out against the government’s handling of the virus. Furthermore, there have been several cases of countries who have successfully curbed the spread of the virus without resorting to arbitrary detention, suggesting that it is possible to successfully manage COVID-19 without the need to deviate from international law.
Countries seeking to maintain public health should be aware of human rights concerns and ensure that any policies taken are human rights-oriented in their approach and if not, should be aware of the international legal provisions for deviating from these rights. States have a responsibility to ensure the right to health. Governments should further avoid coercive measures as they may create distrust towards the government and lead an individual to avoid screening and treatment, increasing the likelihood of the disease to spread. Furthermore, some public health and legal experts have expressed that coercive policies may disproportionately affect the most at-risk segments of society. The best way to ensure effective measures of containing the spread of coronavirus are undoubtedly those which respect human rights. Without respect to human rights, countries run the risk of creating inefficient policies and furthering the risks posed to public health.