COVID-19 and Human Rights


Matthew Scott, Head of People on the move Thematic Area and Senior Researcher, on Covid-19 and Human Rights in general.

‘The pandemic has revealed strengths and weaknesses in our societies, and highlighted the importance of protecting human rights before, during and in the aftermath of disaster’s.

What could be the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the defence of human rights? 

It is important to recognize challenges as well as opportunities here. Pandemics, like any disaster, reveal weaknesses in social systems. As a consequence of the virus, and the way governments have responded to the virus, we can see clearly what happens when societies prioritize the right to health, the right to social security, access to information and other fundamental rights.

We have also seen how inequality makes certain groups far more exposed and vulnerable to the virus, and this is generating important discussions about the kinds of societies we want to live in. Human rights should feature prominently in those discussions. At the same time, disasters provide opportunities for more restrictive governance, and there are real concerns about the long term impact of the pandemic response on the right to privacy in particular. There is also a risk that, as a consequence of the economic impacts of the pandemic response, governments will invest less in core economic, social and cultural rights, like housing, healthcare and decent work.

What are the rights most threatened by this pandemic?

The right to life and the right to health are both on the front lines in this pandemic, both as a consequence of the virus itself, as well as the way different countries are responding. Also, specific rights of children, persons with disabilities, women, minority ethnic groups, refugees and others are particularly at risk.

There is also reason to be concerned about how the response to the virus is impacting rights to privacy, to freedom of speech and to freedom of association.

Not all rights are absolute, and in a pandemic there is a need to balance individual freedoms against the need to protect public health. However, sometimes governments either use the pandemic as an excuse to restrict freedoms as part of a wider political agenda, or sometimes they just get the balance wrong. There is an important role for the media, national human rights institutions, academia, civil society, the international community and others to play in protecting these rights.

 What are the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic on this issue?

From a human rights perspective, the clear message is that governments have a responsibility to prevent and prepare for disasters of all kinds, including pandemics. We can expect more crisis situations in a future made more unstable and unpredictable as a consequence of climate change and environmental degradation. In order to protect life, health and livelihoods, governments need to take steps, to the maximum of their available resources, to ensure that all people enjoy at least a minimum standard of living. This does not come overnight, and there are enormous challenges and inequalities. But resilience is built on rights, and countries that prioritize resilience for all will be better prepared for the next crisis.

How can the right to health be better guaranteed in the coming years?

The right to health, like other economic, social and cultural rights, is built on the concept of progressive realisation. This means that each country must take steps, to the maximum of available resources, to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the greatest possible enjoyment of the right to health for all people, without discrimination.

As we have seen how people living in situations of vulnerability have been most affected by the virus as well as the response to the virus, there is good reason to focus efforts on building more inclusive societies. Refugees, persons with disabilities, elderly people, and in particular women in these kinds of situations, often face greater obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to health. Societies where people enjoy equal access to healthcare, and who enjoy a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, will be better placed to prevent, prepare for and bounce back from health hazards that we can expect in the future.