Egmont Institute logo

Human Rights matter more than ever in the Covid-19 era

Post thumbnail print


In this commentary, Egmont senior researcher and affiliated senior researcher with the Leuven Institute of Criminology (University of Leuven) Valérie Arnould examines the human rights challenges the Covid-19 crisis poses in the short and the long term and how these can have important political and social consequences if they are inadequately addressed.

Read the full text below.

(Photo credit: Pixabay, by Gerd Altmann)


Human Rights matter more than ever in the Covid-19 era

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned into a multifaceted crisis, affecting not only people’s health and straining national medical services but also impacting the global economy, the social fabric of society, the functioning of key state institutions and the care for the most vulnerable persons in society. Because of the extraordinary nature of the crisis, governments are compelled to adopt far-reaching measures. This is necessary to a large extent: ‘politics as usual’ will not work if we are to tackle this global health crisis. But realism also compels us to recognise that we are not in the middle of an apocalypse where all the ‘rules of the game’ can be thrown overboard. The adoption of expansive political and economic policy measures is necessary, but these need to remain within the boundaries of states’ human rights obligations.

So far, most countries have responded to the Covid-19 crisis with due concern for their citizens’ needs and deployed massive financial and material means to flatten the infection curve, albeit some more reluctantly and belatedly than others. It is fair to say that most governments are doing the best they can. Nonetheless, some states and populations’ responses to Covid-19 have also raised important human rights concerns. The use of excessive force by security forces in imposing lockdowns and social distancing measures, xenophobic attacks towards Asian communities, and the imposition of censorship on the basis of combating ‘fake news’ (probably the most slippery concept of this decade) or to ‘avoid scaremongering’ illustrate the immediate human rights risks posed by the pandemic. Equally concerning are reports about states failing to take into consideration Covid-19 infection risks in forced returns policies, adopting insufficient protective measures for migrant workers, asylum-seekers or undocumented workers, and restricting the scope of temporary prisoner release measures. We need to remain vigilant about such developments and states should denounce and address them, no matter how overburdened governments are with the day-to-day challenges of managing the Covid-19 crisis. Under existing regional and international human rights law, the existence of a state of public health emergency does not absolve states from all their human rights obligations, and measures adopted to respond to the emergency need to be non-discriminatory, proportional and necessary.

It is important to also be cognisant of those human rights risks whose negative impact could last beyond the immediate crisis situation. On one side the risk is political, as the pandemic can create incentives and opportunities for democratic backsliding. This has been most glaring in Hungary, where parliament adopted a law which grants the government sweeping emergency powers and extended President Orbán’s ability to rule by decree indefinitely. President Trump’s recent declaration that his presidential ‘authority is total’ and his views and decisions on the Covid-19 crisis overrules those of state governors, similarly, gives off a strong whiff of executive overreach. Such signs of authoritarian creep or overextension of executive power could be further strengthened by a growing populist backlash in the post-corona era. Precedent teaches us that people have a tendency to turn towards ‘strong’ leaders in times of uncertainty and severe economic crises, despite any lack of evidence that ‘strong’ leaders are actually more effective at addressing these challenges. It is therefore key for political actors, at the national and international level, to work towards maintaining populations’ trust in the institutions that are responsible for responding to the pandemic, through transparent communication, clear and decisive policies, and broad-based consultative processes. It will be equally important for governments to avoid entering into a blame game in a bid to evade their own responsibilities or to win electoral votes. Playing on citizen’s insecurities to serve narrow political interests can only harm democracy and the rule of law in the long term.

But there are also more discrete ways in which the Covid-19 crisis may pose challenges to our political institutions. Many countries have already decided to temporarily suspend parliamentary sessions or to close down courts. Such measures can be necessary and acceptable in order to protect citizen’s health. However, such disruptions to the functioning of key institutions of the state should be strictly limited in time. The role of courts and parliament in reviewing executive decisions and guaranteeing the human rights protections of the most vulnerable persons becomes even more important in times of emergency. Therefore, where possible, it falls within state’s duties to ensure working arrangements can be put in place to ensure that these institutions remain minimally operational and deal with the most urgent and essential cases. Where total closure of courts is genuinely unavoidable, these institutions, which should be classed as essential service providers, need to be amongst the first to re-open when lockdown measures are phased out.

Many countries will also have to decide what to do with elections planned for 2020. Countries like South Korea and Germany have shown that elections can still take place despite the ongoing pandemic. For many countries though, the logistics involved in organising elections under such difficult conditions will be too overwhelming. But the real challenge lies with the fact that the Covid-19 crisis is a double-edged sword. It can be instrumentalised by a ruling regime that wants to extend its term in power to postpone elections, but equally keeping elections on the books while restrictions are in place on public gatherings and social contacts can unfairly skew election processes by limiting the ability of opposition parties to go on the campaign trail or by hampering voter turnout. Governments should engage in genuine consultative processes with all political stakeholders before making a decision about the necessity and desirability of postponing or maintaining elections. Moreover, where external actors, like the European Union, are involved in supporting and monitoring such elections they should make careful assessments on a case-by-case basis about whether conditions are present for the organisation of free and fair elections.

The second long-term human rights challenge posed by the Covid-19 crisis is its impact on socioeconomic inequality. It is the economically weakest individuals and vulnerable groups in society which are likely to bear the full brunt of the economic impact of the crisis. While there has justifiably been a strong focus on the sacrifices currently being made by medical and care staff, there are many other categories of workers who are standing at the frontline of the crisis – many who are low income earners: supermarket workers, street cleaners and garbage collectors, those who keep utility services running, hospital cleaners, truck drivers, warehouse workers, farmers, cargo port workers, public transport staff etc. It is thanks to them that the more affluent members of society are able to safely and comfortably stay at home. Providing the necessary protective measures in their working environments is an absolute priority, but so is the provision of psychological support, where needed, and putting in place a fair compensation system for these frontline workers after the crisis has waned.

Most governments are committing themselves to expansive socioeconomic support measures to limit the long-term socioeconomic effects of the pandemic. The central challenge will be to avoid that narrowly focused economic recovery measures trump social solidarity policies. The latter entails that economic support measures are not limited to businesses, but also include economic policies that are tailored to different worker categories and that social policies in support of the most vulnerable groups in society are not cut back on. In some countries, economic support measures will also need to include those working in the informal sector and smallhold farming. While the pandemic is currently seen to primarily constitute a global health and economic crisis, it is important to keep in mind that it can also be the harbinger of a deeper political and social crisis if adequate measures are not adopted from the outset.