The Invisible Crises: Protecting Human Rights During a Pandemic

It has been nearly 5 months since the first evidence of a viral outbreak was detected in the city of Wuhan. Since December 2019, we have seen significant loss on both the personal and governmental level, with over 9,000,000 infections and 475,123 deaths (all statistics correct as of 23/06/2020) around the world, and the crippling of the global economy. Throughout this period, we have also seen the gradual erosion of human rights. Racism, strict authoritarian responses, intrusive surveillance, and the closing of borders just a few of the human rights abuses that seem to be on the daily rise.

Human Rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity.

Mother Teresa

The attack on the media and the infringement of privacy rights

In its report on Covid-19 and human rights in April, The UN pointed out that under the pretext of fake news, journalists, doctors, healthcare workers and activists or political opposition were being arrested. Heightened online surveillance and aggressive cyber policy, forming part of “Sweeping efforts to eliminate misinformation or disinformation” can result “in purposeful or unintentional censorship that underpins trust”.

The attack on the media during the pandemic is a global phenomenon. In the United States of America, President Donald Trump has claimed that his “authority is total” during a White House briefing, using his position to continually undermine the authenticity of the media. Recently, Trump signed an executive order targeting social media companies following his threats to “strongly regulate” or “close down” platforms after Twitter fact-checked a pair of his tweets making false statements about the extent of voter fraud in the US.

Through inhibiting the role of the media in fact-checking his statements, and by making racist and offensive statements to journalists during press briefings, Trump is fuelling racial tensions and a culture of hostility towards foreigners, ultimately shaping his presidency into an autocracy.  

The subversion of the democratic process is also present in the United Kingdom, with No.10 urging people not to “believe everything you read in the papers” following reports that the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings in March, was in violation of government guidance in March. He had driven 260 miles from London to Durham with his family whilst his wife was experiencing Covid-19 symptoms. This was, however soon denounced as an “inaccurate article”. By titling factual, investigative journalism ‘fake news’, the government’s response forms part of a worrying Trumpian trend seen throughout the West. 

The coronavirus pandemic, as with other health crises which demand media attention, must not be used as a cover under which authoritarian states can disregard individual human rights or repress the free flow of information. 

The deprivation of individual freedoms

This state-sponsored silencing and harassment is being mirrored on the personal level, with the establishment of ‘LGBT- Free Zones’  ordaining the legal harassment and intolerance of LGBT citizens in Poland. Hostile spaces are being created for anyone who is not heterosexual or committed to the so-called “natural family”. By stifling personal expression, and passing resolutions against “LGBT propaganda”, local municipalities are depriving their citizens of their intrinsic right to self-determination and freedom of expression. 

As Wiktoria Prococka, a student and close friend of mine living in Poland, states: “We, as today’s generation, lived with the thought that the spirit of authoritarianism was killed, and our parents’ stories would never be repeated.” It is becoming increasingly evident that this ‘spirit’ lives on in the form of censoring of public radio channels, firing tear gas at protestors, and contradictory information ‘surrounding the number of victims to COVID-19’. Wiktoria concludes with the statement that, “whilst all precautions should be taken during the epidemic”, they should “be taken primarily in accordance with the law and fundamental human right.”. This is a statement highly pertinent to the case of borders and refugee rights. 

Refugee and migrant rights

The closing of borders, under the pretext of preventing the transmission of the virus, has forced migrants, refugees and internally displaced people into positions of great vulnerability and risk. The UN recently reported more than 131 countries have closed their borders, with only 30 allowing exemptions for asylum seekers. It is certain that freedom of movement should be curtailed but, as Guterres suggests in the UN report, the scale of such restrictions can be reduced by effective testing and targeted quarantine measures. This is a far better solution in comparison to the forced repatriation of refugees, a policy which has seen thousands “pushed back or deported to dangerous environments” and “Refugees, IDPs [internally displaced persons] and migrants live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to sanitation and healthcare.”

It is clear that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in society. This all thanks to the dramatic rise of hate speech, the state-sponsored targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining individual human rights.

How can our governments responded to this crisis in such a way as to
uphold people’s fundamental dignity and human rights? 

Releasing the report, Guterres called for any states of emergency to be proportionate and time limited, with a specific focus and duration. The impact that the international response has should consider not only the impact on individuals but to the very fabric of our human rights framework and the social safety net. Defending and strengthening the enjoyment of these rights is crucial in a time of multiple and interlocking social and economic crises.

Words by Fiona Zeka

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