9 May, 2021

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Living With Covid: Recover Better – Stand Up For Human Rights

By Asanka Aberathne

Asanka Abeyrathna

On 10th December, every year, International Human Rights Day is annually celebrated in United Nations countries across the world. The General Assembly of the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It was a significant milestone that declared the universal and inalienable rights based on human being and dignity. The preamble of the UDHR has mentioned that “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It emphasizes on being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political, nation, wealth or property, birth, etc. when finding solutions to this crisis. However, at this moment, unfortunately, millions of people are still struggling in day-to-day life with COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s Human Rights Day theme is “Recover Better – Stand up for Human Rights”. The theme directly addresses the COVID-19 pandemic and tries to recover better from the global crisis with ensuring human rights. Although universality and inalienability are key principles of human rights, the international human rights law considers that human rights can be limited in an emergency. With the various religious leanings in Asian society that always emphasizes the citizen’s duties and responsibilities but these yet not give priority on the citizen’s rights. On the other hand, many orient countries view human rights as a western concept, but the new approach seems quite different from the traditional thinking of human rights. We must approach this crisis considering human rights that are critical for the response and better recovery. If we react to this crisis neglecting human rights and freedom the consequences will become dangerous to the justice, peace and livelihood of the general public. Therefore, this article is an attempt to describe the importance of utilizing human rights based approach in seeking a solution to recover better and soon form the crisis.

The threat is the virus, not the people

The legal and political process must not be a threat to human rights in response to the pandemic. But some narratives of the authorities in reporting on the infected are absolutely in stark contrast to human dignity. “Trapping the infected” with camera crews surrounding them as media cover the stories is cold damage to privacy and dignity of the patients. An infected is a person in need of emergency medical treatments and help, not a criminal. Total disregard of humanity and dignity in media coverage is always dangerous. It becomes a scar to the character of the infected when treated as an enemy or threat to community health. Hate speech is the root cause of people trying to hide the disease and causing further spreading of the virus. Physicians and health specialists with experience in epidemiology are capable of controlling the virus. The political authority is responsible for providing the facilities and empowering the health sector to control the pandemic. Instead, we see General Shavendra Silva running the campaign front for the new government as the head of the National Operations Center for the Prevention of Coronavirus Outbreak. Thus, the government is alienating health professionals from providing precise information to the general public and is elaborating the solution of the pandemic to be a military mission.

Harmful laws and constraints help the virus to propagate

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, every country in the world is now party to at least one human rights treaty that addresses health and patient rights. Yet, harmful laws, policies, and practices routinely interfere with access to health care and increase vulnerability to ill health, particularly for poor, marginalized, or criminalized populations. The most crucial thing in day-to-day life is for people to manage their health and self-sanitation without falling into poverty. Just need to provide them access to health services, but many countries are still following harmful health policies. Violation of some health rights may end in death. Ensuring the health rights of every individual in society has become a must, especially in controlling the spread of the virus. The right to health is to recognize the right to live. No matter how dangerous the pandemic is, being free from the arbitrary arrests and detention, fair trial and protection of privacy must be ensured. Emergencies were declared in many countries without a minimum monitoring period. 

According to the ‘Pandemic and Human Rights’ report of the UN, “the public health crisis is rapidly becoming an economic and social crisis, and the health and human rights crisis is not two but one”. More than 2.2 billion people worldwide are insecure without even the minimum sanitation. Regular hand wash for this 2.2 billion people is not an option where water facilities are insufficient. Keeping the one-meter social distance is not a practical thing for the 1.8 million people because they live in densely populated housing schemes or flats. The homeless community quickly becomes infected with the virus. Without clean water and basic sanitation, the lives of slum dwellers are at high risk as they have no access to frequent hand washing and self-quarantine facilities. However, the virus propagates rapidly in the presence of poverty. 

Drones can search for us, but it’s useless in controlling the virus

High-tech flying cameras used by the security forces can easily capture the behavior of people even in the dark. Violations of human rights and fundamental freedom and privacy during the pandemic have increased due to the widespread use of drones in China. Military regimes have used online drone technology to restrict individual freedom, to warn and even in punishing. In Sri Lanka, the government’s use of high-tech flying cameras in lockdown areas in response to the pandemic is a blatant violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Army drones monitor the human behavior in the lockdown areas but it does not carry first-aid to people suffering from ill-health. Government flying cameras violate the privacy of self-quarantining individuals and have carelessly failed to facilitate them with medicinal needs. But these drones have proven to work well in isolating the victims from their human rights. Even during the big lockdown, the government issued utility bills, credit bills with taking no regard to providing essential food and medicine in most parts of the country. Thus, flying cameras are not an effective solution for the virus.

Comments are very important

We need to reconsider how to deal with harmful speech while protecting freedom of expression. Freedom of the press, the right to information are essential human rights in a progressive society even during the virus. If the access to information is limited, the risk of infection skyrockets. One can express their opinion in any situation and free ideas do not always have to be the right opinion. The arbitrary arrests, detentions and prosecutions have increased globally on sharing fake news. Therefore locks on the virus have also fallen on democracy. Sharing information is especially important on the pandemic because, without accurate data, we cannot be protected from the virus. Scientific data and information on the pandemic are needed to develop drugs and vaccines for the virus. Even social distancing can only be maintained on accurate information. Authoritarian and populist leaders have distorted the truth and important information. And they seem to rely on personal beliefs and mythical solutions. At least during the pandemic, people should trust the opinions of experts, not the politicians.

The virus does not discriminate against humans, but its effects are different

The pandemic is a threat to the human family. It is enough to have the virus in even one community because the virus does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion or colour. Even just one case of discrimination against communities puts all of us at risk. Some leaders described the pandemic as “foreigners’ disease”, which can even raise disunity among the nations. The reality is not easy of course, lives are insecure without facilities for the doctors and health staff, regardless of local or foreign differences. During the pandemic, it has exacerbated the abuse, specialization, and discrimination against women working in low-wage part-time occupations and Man-power services. 

We must urge in finding solutions for the pandemic but should be careful enough to protect democracy. To save lives, human rights must be at the forefront of the fight against the virus. It provides good guidance on how to deal with emergencies and effectively enable community contributions and capabilities to fight the virus. Most importantly, humanity, mutual respect and solidarity must be included in governing the human family and strengthening the power to face the pandemic. When we recover, we should be better than before, in humanity and dignity. If we want to be better soon, we must stand up for human rights.

*Asanka Aberathne – Centre for the Study of Human Rights, University of Peradeniya 

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Latest comments

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    Dear Asanka
    It seems that you do not want to upset the apple cart so to speak. This is understandable given your standing in the Centre for Human Rights
    However, the question is Human Rights or the Pandemic or both Human rights and Covid 19
    Human dignity should not be game for politicians to mess around. Human dignity in my book is sacrosanct and not for negotiation, full stop
    The pandemic is bad enough for all of us and if you combine that with Human Right abuses is a mouthful for anyone to swallow
    In the SriLankan context I must haste to add that there seems be a very thin line between the two
    High tech cameras and drones being employed to sneak the victims is adding fuel to the already burring situation further. My understanding is that leading health professionals and their valid concerns have been given wide berth by the authorities on this issue
    Where is the basic respect for human privacy, it seems none in Sri Lanka as well as the draconian regime in China. Are we heading towards the Venezuelan situation?

    “When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied” Herophilus
    So, it is apparent that health is wealth

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    Now that you have mentioned about human rights especially during this pandemic, lets see the Rajapaksa brothers report card. 1) throughout misinformed and lied to undermine the spread of pandemic for political gain 2) anyone who questioned or tried to present real facts were arrested 3) social media and other were put under survillance to supress infor.4) govt used the opportunity to replace the adminin with military. 5) conducted an islandwide election under the pretext of safe environment, which turned out to be a super spreader event 6) passed 20th bribing a few and gotit enforced as planned.7) curtailed all movements , including the opposition so that it was campaign free election for them 8) at the same time govt used every relief opportunity for their electoral gains, used the media time to promote them and misinformed public of eradicating for election gains.7) used the opportunity to pardon and release murders and rapist7) continue to fan anti minority sentiments by denying burial/mourning rights. 8) allowed Thonda’s procession, so to strike deal with Jeevan, who’s support was vital for 2/3. Not bad for a first 100 days report card.

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