How is Covid-19 impacting human rights?

Covid-19 constitutes a major stress test for societies, states, and the international order. When it comes to its human rights dimension, many countries are failing this test. Neoliberal economic, austerity and hostile environments policies have left social protection threadbare. They have undermined public services, social security, and workers’ rights and exposed ever more people to their harmful consequences.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, sounded the alarm bells following his visits to the US and the UK in 2017 and 2018, highlighting the dramatic impact of these developments on the rights of persons living in poverty. His warnings went unheeded. Unsurprisingly, countries such as the US and UK now appear to be particularly ill-prepared to cope with the pandemic.    

Covid-19 has achieved what many governments have long been able to downplay or otherwise relegate to the political margins. It shines a stark spotlight on systemic institutional shortcomings and the realities of precarious lives. What has changed is the political imperative to act. Weak public health systems and social safety nets are breeding grounds for the pandemic to spread. So are overcrowded and under-resourced prisons and immigration detention facilities.

As highlighted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Covid-19 is rampaging through places of detention, resulting in an increasing number of deaths in several countries. The UK immigration detention system, which had already been in a state of crisis before the outbreak of Covid-19, is one of them. The current situation has now forced the government to release almost 300 detainees when faced with legal action that it could not provide adequate health protection. 

The response to Covid-19 essentially leads to an enforced paralysis of public life with dramatic repercussions for many. Protecting individuals from the economic and social fallout of measures taken is not only a political question. Human rights law already provides a framework to guide government action, as states have an obligation to protect a range of rights such as the right to work, to housing, to education, and to livelihood. States have a heightened duty to help and protect those most at risk. In the UK, these people are, not by chance, often those who have borne the brunt of austerity policies, growing inequality and marginalisation.

Effectively, therefore, the government has to pay extra now to help all those it has failed to help over the last decade. This is a large number of people, from those in precarious employment or living on the streets or in unaffordable housing, to the many others on the edge of society, particularly those without secure immigration status. This development is the inevitable outcome of a poor record on and regard for economic, social and cultural rights, as highlighted by organisations such as Just Fair over the last decade.

The human rights and public health imperative to protect the most vulnerable notwithstanding, populist free-market advocates have sought to frame narratives that prioritise their economic and political interests. The business as usual or back to business as quickly as possible rhetoric carries Darwinian undertones. It pits the young, healthy, and productive as those whose interests take priority against the elderly and those with underlying health conditions who are expendable. It represents a continuum of the very neoliberal logic that has not only polarised Western societies but also created North-South divides, with their own populations of expendables, domestically and transnationally, that have led to ever greater inequality.

The failure of governance and lack of priority according to the public interest is now starkly laid bare in the state of the health services. Those working in these services are celebrated in nationalist and sentimental accounts whilst having their right to health and a healthy working environment compromised. They embody the stark contrast, at the risk of paying with their lives, between national myths and the dire consequences of policies that undermine public institutions.        

People around the world expect their governments to take effective measures to combat the pandemic. Indeed, states have an obligation, both within their jurisdictions and internationally, to do their utmost to prevent and control epidemics and to provide the best possible treatment to those affected. The level of risk and fear gives states extraordinary licence to restrict liberties and to take decisions that drastically impact people’s lives. Border closures, restrictions of free movement, resort to comprehensive digital surveillance and other such measures are Janus-faced. They help in combating the pandemic but also enlarge states’ arsenal to control their populations’ movements and conduct ever more closely.

History offers countless examples where supposedly temporary measures became the new normal, strengthening state control in their wake. This applies particularly to hastily enacted emergency laws vesting governments with far-reaching powers. The risk of abuse of power and of authoritarian legacies is real, as is evident in Hungary’s open-ended emergency bill and the sweeping powers set out in the UK’s Coronavirus Bill. The legacy of Covid-19 emergency laws in legal systems around the world is an issue that has to be put firmly on the agenda of post-pandemic human rights scrutiny.  

The pandemic is a harrowing experience that creates a shared sense of vulnerability, albeit one whose impact differs markedly depending on one’s level of privilege or marginalisation. Its long-term consequences are difficult to gauge. One of its early lessons must surely be that life as we know it has to change. If Covid-19 is a harbinger of things to come in times of worsening climate change, trying to carry on as before is increasingly looking suicidal. Making the state work for the benefit of all and tackling marginalisation, particularly its causes, are absolute priorities. Writ large, this is both a national and international agenda to address global inequalities within and across countries.

The right to solidarity and an ethics of care for each other must not be a pipe dream. They form the very foundation of a community of solidarity that takes responsibility for our common and individual well-being. The current crisis presents a unique opportunity, if not imperative, to imagine and start building a different world in which current and future generations are able and happy to live in.

About the author

Professor Lutz Oette is a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the School of Law