By Mohamed Harees –
“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” ~ John F. Kennedy
Although many analysts have been calling this dreaded Corona crisis, as “a great leveller” that does not discriminate in terms of social status and is not deterred by borders, UK’s BBC TV anchor Emily Maitlis, interestingly called it a myth which needs debunking. She has received quite a bit of praise on Twitter for her opening remarks on her latest Newsnight programme. She called out the language surrounding the coronavirus crisis and denounced the suggestion that the pandemic would impact everyone equally. “The disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. Those on the front line right now — bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers — are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown a lot tougher. Those who work in manual jobs will be unable to work from home.”. Yes! Thus , on a closer look, the ground realities are belying this widely believed phenomenon of being a great leveller. The crisis does not affect all equally; thus ‘the great leveller’ turns out to be a sickly myth that we are all in this together.
Of course, this is the first crisis in our living memory where all of us are truly in it together. Privileged people are feeling very vulnerable for the first time. However, although the virus doesn’t discriminate, we do know that certain groups appear to be at greater risk of severe illness and death. For some, this is a time of grand inconvenience, of undoubted stress, of a self-evident loss of freedom. For others, this is both a national and personal disaster, a present defined by turmoil and of futures snatched away. When risk and uncertainty affects the wealthy, the welfare of vulnerable people may be neglected. According to the WHO, older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease) seem to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. People living in poverty and homelessness will find it much harder to access preventive measures. They may be working on zero-hour contracts, reliant on benefits and subject to punitive measures for example in the UK, under the system of Universal Credit. Millions of daily wage workers are queuing up to obtain government hand-outs in the developing countries. Wide appeals by the health authorities that people should stay at home if they’re feeling unwell or begin to stockpile food in response to the coronavirus outbreak may be well-intentioned guidance, but it may also fail to take into account the most vulnerable groups of society. It is an amplifier of existing inequalities, injustices and insecurities. As the pandemic spreads far and wide, nations are facing the grim reality of undergoing the devastating impact it is having now on families, friends and communities, and will continue to have into the unforeseeable future, precipitating a serious human rights crisis.
International law underscores the primary responsibility of states to guarantee protection, protects human rights, facilitates humanitarian assistance and promotes durable solutions including through access to effective remedies for international human rights and humanitarian law violations. However, humanitarian crises — including man-made conflicts, natural disasters and pandemics — almost invariably result in immense human suffering, threats and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law..Humanitarian crises often result in or exacerbate human rights concerns. In addition, deteriorating human rights situations may trigger crises and increase humanitarian needs of affected populations.
The protection of human rights is central to ensuring an effective humanitarian response. However, how protection is operationalized in practice is contested in certain contexts. The challenge is to devise strategies to ensure that in all circumstances the protection of human rights and engagement in humanitarian action are mutually reinforcing rather than ‘traded off’ against each other. Recent decades have seen a progressive erosion of hard-won economic and social rights, deepening social inequalities, the expansion of precarious work and the regression of the welfare state in a growing number of countries.This has been accompanied by a backlash against human rights, leading in some cases to the criminalisation of social movements and rising populism, nationalism and xenophobia.
As concerns grow about how the coronavirus crisis might threaten human rights around the world, the United Nations is calling on countries to adopt a more cooperative, global and human rights-based approach to the pandemic, which Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a human crisis”. As Amnesty International said,’ today, human rights are central to the situation we all face. At their heart, human rights are both a protection from the power of the state and a demand that our governments use their considerable power to protect lives, health and wellbeing. It added,(in the UK context) ‘Government ensures human rights are at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts, in order to best protect public health, welfare, and support the groups and individuals most at risk. The government must provide full economic support to protect people’s right to a home, to work and to an adequate standard of living. They will need to take action and extend the arms of state protection and support, perhaps more widely than ever before”. This applies to developing countries as well.
“Censorship, discrimination and arbitrary detention have no place in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director at Amnesty International. “Human rights violations hinder, rather than facilitate, responses to public health emergencies, and undercut their efficiency.”. Human rights are our roadmap for peace times and times of crisis; our government must thus ensure that its response has these rights front and centre in decision-making and does not make the situation worse. This crisis begs for a bailout for the most vulnerable, a sort of people’s quantitative easing. This is a human rights principle as well: attention to the most vulnerable individuals must be prioritised in times of financial crises and emergencies. But the issue goes beyond human rights. We are talking about what a country wants to be known for, even what it is. Societies that prioritise fairness will do best out of this crisis. NZ can be cited as an example.
The Government has an obligation to take steps to protect people’s lives and this will involve restrictions on individual freedoms. But in times of crisis, states have a habit of ignoring human rights perspectives, reaching for intrusive surveillance and even harsh criminal punishments. Our governments have now headed in that direction too. This is not the answer. It is needed to make sure that no one has to sacrifice their rights and instead fairness, equality and dignity underpin the coronavirus response.
A joint statement of UN human rights experts stated, “Everyone, without exception, has the right to life-saving interventions and this responsibility lies with the government. The scarcity of resources or the use of public or private insurance schemes should never be a justification to discriminate against certain groups of patients. Everybody has the right to health.” On the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, the statement said, ‘These are the groups among the most at risk in this pandemic; they should not also be at risk because of the response’. In addition to the greater risk of severe illness and death from the virus, discriminatory attitudes and actions threaten older people’s rights. It is alarming that a ‘Telegraph, UK’ newspaper opinion piece about the economic impact of the coronavirus stating that the death of older people could actually be beneficial by “culling elderly dependents.” In a March 22 interview, Ukraine’s former health minister said people over 65 are already “corpses” and the government should focus its COVID-19 efforts on people “who are still alive.”
COVID-19 is not just a health issue; it has also become a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate, Islamophobia and exclusion. Reports of Chinese and other Asians being physically attacked; of hate speech blaming minorities; and examples of the racist media in India and Sri Lanka, trying to aggravate the situation by using the pandemic to communalise the situation have unfortunately become common. True! As Gerard Quinn, professor of law at the University of Leeds and at the Wallenberg Institute in the University of Lund, Sweden says, ‘Emergencies demand a tailored and efficient response. But there are limits, including trampling on existing rights and protections, especially for groups at higher risk of COVID such as people with disabilities and older people. If we are not careful, such emergency measures can become Trojan horses to needlessly erode established protections.”
In the discourse on human rights, it also important to realise the truth that human rights law has also failed to accomplish the objectives of its founding fathers. Although the modern notion of human rights emerged during the 18th century, it was on December 10, 1948, that the story began in earnest, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)by the UN general assembly. The declaration arose from the ashes of the second world war and aimed to launch a new, brighter era of international relations. It provided a long list of rights- political, social, and economic. Although the impact of human rights regime cannot be belittled, there is however little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole, have improved the wellbeing of people. The reason is that human rights were never as universal as people hoped, and the belief that they could be forced upon countries as a matter of international law was shot through with misguided assumptions from the very beginning. Mostly, social and economic rights are reduced to paper.
The weaknesses that would go on to undermine human rights law were there from the start. The universal declaration was not a treaty in the formal sense: no one at the time believed that it created legally binding obligations. It was not ratified by nations but approved by the general assembly, and the UN charter did not give the general assembly the power to make international law. Moreover, the rights were described in vague, aspirational terms, which could be interpreted in multiple ways, and national governments – even the liberal democracies – were wary of binding legal obligations. The US did not commit itself to eliminating racial segregation, and Britain and France did not commit themselves to liberating the subject populations in their colonies. Several authoritarian states – including the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Saudi Arabia – refused to vote in favour of the universal declaration and instead abstained. The words in the universal declaration may have been stirring, but no one believed at the time that they portended a major change in the way international relations would be conducted; nor did they capture the imagination of voters, politicians, intellectuals or anyone else who might have exerted political pressure on governments. More than seven decades, human dignity envisaged in the UDHR stills remains a mirage for millions of people worldwide at the grassroot levels. Inequality gaps between the rich and poor remains all time high.
Thus, as the world goes through a challenging time in recent history, amid a pandemic , all signs also point out to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement. Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. Most rich nations are using human rights to subdue and control the poorer countries. Their aid goes with human rights strings attached while their hypocrisy about not applying the same principles in their own countries goes unnoticed even by the UN. Like Trump did recently, when he threatened to cut funds for the WHO, those powerful nations control the international agencies as well.
Amid these challenges, human rights still throws much light of hope to a world dimmed by war, poverty and pandemics like Covid. Governments should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by prioritizing the right to health for all and respect for human rights particularly to the vulnerable groups. Governments also have an obligation to protect health workers who are working tirelessly on the frontlines. Overall, the entire world will be at risk if government responses to this epidemic reinforce discriminatory attitudes and ignore the human rights of certain categories of people. In this battle, poorer countries cannot be ignored by the affluent countries either, as this is an existential threat to the entire mankind. Together we swim; otherwise we drown together. Human beings share a community of common destiny.