COVID-19 and human rights: challenges and opportunities

These are hard times. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing immense disruption, grief, and anxiety, as well as physical suffering and death, in most countries in the world. And yet this disruption may also bring hope, and opportunities for communities to build a new and better world, both now and in the coming years and months, as the world contains the virus and wakes up to lasting changes.

Unexpected things – good and bad – often spring out of disaster. In order to ensure that the good outweighs the bad in the coming months and years following this outbreak, we must take action to foster those good outcomes and reject the worst impulses of our governments and ourselves.

Unexpected things – good and bad – often spring out of disaster. In order to ensure that the good outweighs the bad in the coming months and years following this outbreak, we must take action to foster those good outcomes and reject the worst impulses of our governments and ourselves.

Some signs of hope are already appearing. Did you see that Iran has pardoned or temporarily released thousands of prisoners? That London is moving to house rough sleepers? That the US has moved to protect everyone’s internet access?

One of the strengths of HRMI’s systematic approach to measuring the human rights performances of countries is that we can show the improvements, as well as where the challenges are for countries and their people. Our 2020 human rights data are being produced right now, and will provide a vital point of comparison for next year’s measurements, as we document how different countries’ respect for human rights shifts during and after the pandemic.

In a few short months COVID-19 has quickly spread across the globe. As the number of people infected grows, governments are deciding what steps to take to combat further transmission of the disease. How states choose to tackle the coronavirus crisis will impact on people’s enjoyment of a range of human rights – and also open up some new opportunities to build a better world.

We’ve taken a closer look at how the pandemic is affecting the 13 human rights HRMI currently measures.

We also look at how societies could make the most of the current turmoil to make important changes for the better.

Empowerment rights

Assembly and association; opinion and expression

As the infection rate grows, many countries are imposing regional or nationwide lockdowns. The World Health Organisation applauded China’s bold containment measures, saying that they may have saved hundreds of thousands of people from contracting the virus. The success of many other countries’ lockdowns is yet to be seen.

Though enacted to protect public health, these strict lockdowns do restrict people’s enjoyment of the right to assembly and association — it is difficult to exercise the right to assemble when the government has expressly prohibited public gatherings. And yet, these restrictions make sense from a public health perspective.

In the early days of the outbreak, the Chinese government attempted to suppress information about the virus. Medical professionals who spoke publicly about the growing threat were silenced and punished. Though China became more transparent about COVID-19 as the epidemic became impossible to ignore, it is worth noting a tension between how states react to the virus and people’s right to freedom of speech. As the virus spreads, countries may have vested interest in quieting dissent from its people for a number of reasons. Whether it be to stop panic and quell misinformation or to hide mismanagement of the crisis, governments may attempt to limit people’s right to opinion and expression. It is important that countries restrict people’s freedom of expression as little as possible and avoid using the virus as an excuse to silence individuals.

In extreme situations like the current COVID-19 pandemic, states need to make choices between conflicting needs and rights.

The United Nations has released this guidance to all states:

While we recognize the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.

Moreover, emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.

Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent.

This is an opportunity for leaders to listen to their people’s calls for greater freedoms. Chinese citizens have begun to put unprecedented pressure on leaders to allow experts to speak out, learning from some disastrous gaps in communication in the early days of the crisis.

Right to participate in government

The virus has the potential to affect people’s ability to participate in government.

For those in quarantine, physically going to the polls is out of the question, and holding elections in public spaces with large numbers of people will worsen the transmission of the disease. Governments will need to take this into account when making policies surrounding COVID-19 and should ensure that even those in quarantine are able to vote and fully participate in the democratic process.

This is an opportunity for all governments to consider ways to make voting more accessible to every person — and indeed taking a fresh look at how we conduct elections can have positive spinoffs for people with mobility restrictions of all kinds.

Opportunity: an emerging right to access the internet?

On 13 March, the United States Federal Communication Commission called on internet providers to pledge to ‘Keep Americans Connected‘ during the pandemic, by waiving late fees, and not cutting customers off, so they could keep up to date with important announcements.

The right to freedom of expression has always included access to important information. As vital health information is increasingly available only to those with internet access, people’s right to a good standard of health is also relevant as we consider, in the wake of COVID-19, whether internet access needs specific protection and promotion within a human rights framework.

In times of lockdown, our right to freedom of assembly can also be bolstered by the recognition of internet rights.

Living in Italy, Marta Achler, senior legal adviser for the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law was finding solace online while unable to leave the house:

And this led me to a realisation – the internet and the online spaces are indeed becoming our ‘lifeline’ for expression and assembly. And to an appeal – this lifeline is under threat and deserves much more protection than it currently has. We have an immediate opportunity to remedy that.

Achler argues that:

The opportunity for global and European bodies to elevate human rights online by protecting online, internet, freedoms of assembly, association, expression, from State interference, but also from commercial interests of internet service providers, cannot be missed.  The world is no longer connected only through physical gatherings of people across oceans and borders. We are connected and gather online, for a variety of purposes. To express solidarity and connect isolated communities, voice opinions, but also for reasons such as access to important, life-saving information.

This is an opportunity to recognise our increasing dependence on the internet for information and online gatherings, and make sure all people can enjoy the use of this modern necessity.

Safety from the state: physical integrity rights

Freedom from arbitrary arrest

Countries around the world are passing emergency legislation, giving the state the power to detain and isolate people suspected of having coronavirus. These practices could have significant impacts on people’s right to freedom from arbitrary arrest. Governments must ensure the exercise of these powers is carried out based on sound scientific evidence, not merely targeting certain groups.

Widespread detention of people based on bias or misinformation, such as detention of people solely based on race or nationality, would constitute a violation of people’s right to freedom from arbitrary arrest.

Opportunity: Decarceration

Experts have pointed out — for decades — that prisons are high risk environments for infectious disease, and often do not provide adequate healthcare, even in normal circumstances.

The good news is that COVID-19 has begun to shock some authorities into acting on this knowledge, with pardons or temporary releases of prisoners in, for example, Iran, and the United States.

This is an opportunity for countries to learn the many benefits of dealing with most offenders without imprisonment, and permanently and continually lower incarceration rates.

Policing: risks and opportunities

On Safety from the State, there is also a generalised risk that comes from increasing the number of interactions between police and individuals during shelter-in-place orders, quarantines, and the like. These increased interactions are most likely to affect those that are already likely to experience rights abuses: discriminated groups, people with low socioeconomic status, and people who are homeless.

Given that in some places, interactions with the police are already fraught with the danger of violence, this is likely to lead to more unnecessary cases of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killing.

Given that in some places, interactions with the police are already fraught with the danger of violence, this is likely to lead to more unnecessary cases of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killing.

States need to be careful to minimise these dangers throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

This is an opportunity for governments to investigate new forms of policing that are more cooperative and less punitive. In enforcing quarantine and social distancing orders for the good of the public, police may be in a good position to choose the most cooperative and non-confrontational interactions in their skillsets, seeking to help resolve whatever issues people are facing that lead them to violate the orders, rather than merely responding with fines, punishment, or violence.

This shift in mindset could outlast the current crisis, if that’s something police leaders choose to prioritise.

Quality of Life

Right to health

Healthcare systems are already overwhelmed in countries like Italy with severe outbreaks. This not only presents a problem for those infected but for those with other health concerns that may be overlooked due to the immense strain on the healthcare system. COVID-19 proves a significant threat to people’s right to adequate healthcare, especially in countries that already perform poorly on this metric without the added stress of an pandemic.

HRMI measures how well countries are using their income to ensure their people enjoy their right to the highest attainable standard of health. Our scores take income into account, so each country is judged on how well it could be doing, given its current resources. As such, every country can achieve 100% on our scale if it uses its available resources wisely.

Our scores take income into account, so each country is judged on how well it could be doing, given its current resources. As such, every country can achieve 100% on our scale if it uses its available resources wisely.

However, many countries have some way to go to meet this standard, and the pressure of a pandemic will make government effectiveness at ensuring the right to health even more difficult.

It is sobering that Italy in fact receives a good score of 97.3% for the right to health, as shown in the chart below (from the new version of our Rights Tracker, due to be released in April). How much harder, then, will other countries find it to cope with an epidemic. In order to preserve lives, all countries must step up containment responses.

Italy economic and social rights scores, HRMI Rights Tracker

Italy’s economic and social rights scores, from the HRMI Rights Tracker.

Right to food

In the event of a large-scale quarantine or lockdown, governments need to ensure people have sufficient access to food.

It is poignant to note that this right could conflict with school closures. In many countries, some children receive free or reduced cost meals at school as their main source of food. Though once considered a last resort, school systems across the United States have been forced to close, leaving these students without access to the schools lunches they rely upon. Additionally, many people may not be able to afford to stockpile supplies in the case of lockdown or to have food delivered when quarantined. States will need to take this into account when enforcing quarantine or lockdowns to guarantee access to food for people in isolation.

This is an opportunity for governments to acknowledge that there are currently many, many people who are not enjoying their right to adequate food.

As this chart (from the new version of our Rights Tracker, soon to be released) shows, the United States’ right to health score is only 90.2, which falls into the ‘fair’ category.

United States, economic and social rights scores, Rights Tracker

The United States’ economic and social rights scores, from HRMI’s Rights Tracker, visualisation with shaded interpretation bars from a new version, soon to be released.

Further, among high income countries, the United States is near the bottom for its performance at ensuring people enjoy the right to adequate food:

Right to food, all high income countries, HRMI Rights Tracker

Right to food, all high income countries, HRMI Rights Tracker, visualisation from the yet-to-be released version, but using the same data as is presented on the current Rights Tracker.

If necessary infection control measures such as school closures jeopardise children’s nutrition, countries have the opportunity to make significant changes to how they ensure people’s right to food. We can hope to see the US score rise in future data updates if the country responds to this challenge well.

Right to education

Many states have instituted widespread school closures in the hopes of combatting COVID-19. While in the short term this move will help prevent further spread of the virus, it will have repercussions on the right to education if schools stay closed in the long term. States will have to consider how best to keep students in education without being in the classroom.

Though online options may work for some, they leave out those with no internet access, or internet-capable devices, at home and may not be an adequate replacement for in-person instruction. Individual quarantines may also cause students to miss valuable instruction time. Governments should work to make sure that students have access to education even in the event of a pandemic-related lockdown.

This is an opportunity, as discussed above, for work on treating access to the internet as an economic or social right.

In low income countries, even the right to primary education is not enjoyed by all children, and will be further disrupted by any school closures.

HRMI scores for the right to education (and all economic and social rights we measure) take each country’s per capita income into account, as a way of measuring how well countries are giving effect to the obligation in international law for ‘progressive realisation’ of these rights. More is expected of countries with more resources. Our scores show that many low income countries are not doing as well as they could be — even at their limited levels of income — at making sure people enjoy their right to education.

For example, here are the scores for low and middle income countries in East Asia and the Pacific (you can see the right to education scores for all countries on our Rights Tracker). The graph shows that some countries, like Tuvalu, are performing almost as well as they could be expected to do at their level of income, but many are not.

Right to education, East Asia and Pacific low and middle income countries, HRMI Rights Tracker

Right to education, East Asia and Pacific low and middle income countries, HRMI Rights Tracker

As countries recover from COVID-19 and rebuild their societies, they have an opportunity to be inspired by the high scores of other countries with similar levels of income, and look for policy and practice changes they can make to ensure more people can enjoy their right to education.

Right to water and right sanitation

To avoid catching or spreading the virus, we’ve all been told to wash our hands often and diligently. But it is difficult to practise good hand hygiene if you don’t have running water in your home.

HRMI’s right to housing scores include indicators of adequate water and sanitation.

Right to housing

Inequality has been rising in rich countries for years, with many governments reluctant to take action against it.

New Zealand, for instance, is currently only doing 76.7% of what is feasible at its level of wealth to ensure its people enjoy the right to adequate housing, a disappointing score that falls into HRMI’s ‘bad’ category. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, recently called the situation a human rights crisis.

New Zealand economic and social rights scores, HRMI Rights Tracker

New Zealand economic and social rights scores, HRMI Rights Tracker

Human rights experts contributing to HRMI’s New Zealand data identified these groups as particularly at risk of not enjoying their right to adequate housing:

People at risk of not enjoying the right to adequate housing in New Zealand, rightstracker.org

People at risk of not enjoying the right to adequate housing in New Zealand. Explore the data on our Rights Tracker.

The New Zealand government recently responded to the economic effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic by, among other things, raising base social welfare payment levels, permanently, by $25 a week, and doubling the winter energy payment. These are small steps, but they are among those that campaigners have been calling for for many years.

This is an opportunity for all countries to prioritise the most vulnerable people, and make sure everyone has a good quality of life.

When it comes to housing specifically, Leilani Farha is urging countries to ‘take extraordinary measures to secure the right to housing for all to protect against the pandemic.’

“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation,” said Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

“I am deeply concerned about two specific population groups: those living in emergency shelters, homelessness, and informal settlements, and those facing job loss and economic hardship which could result in mortgage and rental arrears and evictions.”

According to the expert, approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide live in homelessness and grossly inadequate housing, often in overcrowded conditions, lacking access to water and sanitation – making them particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus, as they are often suffering from multiple health issues.

“I am urging States to take extraordinary measures to secure the right to housing for all to protect against the pandemic. Good practices are emerging in a few States, including: moratoriums on evictions due to rental and mortgage arrears; deferrals of mortgage payments for those affected by the virus; extension of winter moratoriums on forced evictions of informal settlements; and increased access to sanitation and emergency shelter spaces for homeless people,” Farha said.

Right to work

Given that many people will have to live under quarantine or lockdown for significant portions of time, COVID-19 will affect people’s ability to go to work and maintain their employment.

In countries where sick leave is not guaranteed, people’s right to work and earn a decent living may be threatened by containment measures. Furthermore, many people cannot afford to take long periods of time off of work without proper safety nets in place. These people stand to suffer a substantial loss of income and possible job loss if they are unable to work because of illness, quarantine, care-giving duties, or restrictions on people’s movement.

Amnesty International reported that measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will adversely affect ‘migrant workers, people in insecure employment including in the ‘gig’ economy, people on lower incomes, irregular migrants and people working in the informal sector.’

Further, those living in countries that restrict unions or limit workers rights are more likely to feel the full weight of these preventive policies.

As well as our scores measuring how well countries are turning their income into rights enjoyment, in a smaller set of countries, HRMI also collects qualitative data on who is particularly affected by rights violations.

For example, here is a word cloud showing which people in Fiji are particularly at risk of not enjoying their rights to form and join unions:

Fiji, people at risk of violations of the right to form and join unions, HRMI Rights Tracker

Fiji, people at risk of violations of the right to form and join unions, HRMI Rights Tracker

Note that the word cloud shows intersecting inequalities.

A renewed appreciation of economic and social rights

It’s difficult to quarantine yourself if you don’t have adequate housing, and hard to practise good hand hygiene without running water.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving many people renewed appreciation of just how important people’s economic and social rights are — for all of us.

This is an opportunity for all of us to keep governments focused on their economic and social rights obligations even after the crisis ends, and remind them, and each other, that we are all in this together — both in a crisis, and in ‘normal’ life.

An unexpected opportunity: reasonable accommodations for disabled people

As millions of people begin to work, study, and even consult their doctors from home, many disabled people around the world are wondering why these reasonable accommodations have been denied them until now:

Online communication tools like Zoom are experiencing unprecedented uptake, and employers are learning how best to manage teams remotely.

Disabled people have the right to work, study and participate in all aspects of society. They have the right to have their needs accommodated to make this participation possible. In the past many employers have refused to allow remote working, but this pandemic is proving that it is a reasonable accommodation that could now be offered to all workers who need it for reasons of disability.

This is an opportunity for abled people to grow in empathy — as they experience many of their daily activities being disrupted or inaccessible — and for countries to protect and promote disabled people’s right to reasonable accommodations in their working lives.

HRMI is continuing to measure human rights

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only causing worry and anxiety for people as they face a scary illness and, for many, a loss of livelihood. It’s also testing the strength of our countries’ systems for respecting and protecting human rights. As the HRMI survey collecting data for 2019 draws to a close, we are already thinking ahead to what next year’s data will show about what is happening right now, in 2020.

We are already collecting civil and political rights data on many countries that are currently in the headlines of COVID-19 news for having a significant number of cases: South Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom, for example, and other countries like New Zealand which has managed to contain the virus with more success, so far. We are very keen to expand our annual coverage to include China and the other Asian countries with experience of SARS in 2003 who seem to have been best prepared for implementing containment measures. Which countries will most successfully ensure ongoing protection and respect for human rights while also limiting the death toll and mitigating the economic impact?

The HRMI team is already globally distributed and used to working remotely, so we are calmly continuing to press on with this important work. We invite you to be part of our efforts to expand our country coverage so we can provide the world with important data on how COVID-19 affects the human rights situation in as many countries as possible.

Please follow us on TwitterYouTubeLinkedIn, and Facebook, and sign up to receive occasional newsletters. Let us know what human rights issues are on your mind in this difficult time, and what opportunities you hope the world will take to improve people’s lives now and in its aftermath.