COVID-19 human rights obligations have taken a back seat to protecting public health. Find out why this is starting to change globally.
We’re all potential victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the six other human coronaviruses, it’s virulently contagious.
Early statistics suggest that about 80% of COVID-19 deaths occur in older people above the age of 60. Patients with pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, asthma and PTSD made up about 40% of COVID-19 critical care patients in China.
In Italy, only 2% of patients with no underlying health problems died. For some reason, men are more susceptible to the novel coronavirus than women.
Only 2% of Patents With No Underlying Health Problems Died
About 62% of the COVID-19 patients who died or got severely ill in New York City were men. This is true even though the rate of infection by gender was about 50/50.
Contrary to popular belief, children are just as likely to be infected with the COVID-19 virus as adults. The good news is that kids do seem to fight it off better, although there have been a few cases of child deaths from the novel coronavirus as well.
Although we see trends in these figures, we can say that, in general, COVID-19 does not discriminate. Sadly, we can’t say the same for humanity.
COVID-19 Human Rights Issues Emerging Worldwide
COVID-19 human rights issues are emerging in various places around the world. Probably the most disturbing trend so far is in India.
The population of India is about 80% Hindu and 14% Muslim. Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains make up the balance.
There’s a lot of religious tension in India between various groups, but especially between Hindus and Muslims. Lately, India has seen a spate of attacks against Muslims throughout its vast territory as bigots blame them for the pandemic.
Young Muslims Feeding Poor Assaulted with Cricket Bats
In Karnataka, young Muslim men distributing food to the poor were assaulted by gangs wielding cricket bats. Other communities have seen beatings, attempted lynchings, expulsions, mosque attacks and vile slander against their Muslim residents.
Most of this is the result of intolerant Hindus spreading wild hate speech on social media. Worse still, YouTube videos aimed at Muslims deliberately downplay the risks of COVID-19 as well as any need to take precautions. Apparently, the propagandists hope to lull as many Muslims as possible into getting infected.
These COVID-19 human rights abuses are part of a tyranny of the majority in India. 200 million Muslims live there, but they are trumped by more than a billion Hindus.
Government Made Muslims Second-Class Citizens
The present government has passed laws making Muslims second-class citizens. It charges anyone who protests these laws with inciting violence or sedition.
As with so many rumours, this one involves a leap of imagination. Back in March, the Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat held a gathering of over 8,000 missionaries, inviting delegates from all over the world.
That wasn’t exactly a bright idea, but they thought the virus was Allah’s judgement on evildoers meaning they would be immune. Over a thousand COVID-19 cases in 17 states arose from that meeting.
Gathering of 8,000 Missionaries from Around the World
Authorities have had to quarantine more than 25,000 people who had contact with participants as part of their COVID-19 response. Estimates show that more than one-third of India’s COVID-19 cases come from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation.
Muhammad Saad Khandalvi, the leader of Tablighi Jamaat, has been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Police allege that he ignored two notices from the Indian government telling him to cancel the event.
Here’s where the leap of imagination comes in. The COVID-19 human rights abuses come from Hindu nationalists believing that Muslims deliberately infect Hindus with the coronavirus.
“People Need Only a Small Reason to Beat Us or Lynch Us”
Muhammad Saider can still sell milk from his market stall during the lockdown because food is an essential service. He told the New York Times, “People need only a small reason to beat us or to lynch us because of corona.” One excuse is as good as another.
Khalid Rasheed is the chairman of the Islamic Centre of India. He feels that “Coronavirus may die, but the virus of communal disharmony will be hard to kill when this is over.”
There are other COVID-19 human rights issues outside India. In the United States, we see that blacks are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. In Louisiana, blacks make up more than 70% of pandemic deaths, while representing only 34% of the population.
Blacks More Prone to Suffer from Underlying Diseases
We talked about the risks posed by pre-existing conditions above. Because of what sociologists call the social determinants of health, blacks are much more prone than whites to suffer from underlying illnesses.
The CBC’s Susan Ormiston spoke to Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She explained that “Because of rising inequality, more people are vulnerable. This is a population that has lots of medical and cardiovascular co-morbidities.”
The systemic racism in the United States creates barriers to health that amount to a kind of structural violence against blacks and other people of colour. It’s debatable whether this structural violence is any more ethical than the riots we saw in India.
WHO Raising COVID-19 Human Rights Concerns About Refugees
The World Health Organization (WHO) is raising COVID-19 human rights concerns about another vulnerable group – refugees. They point out that about three-quarters of the world’s refugees and other migrants have taken shelter in developing regions.
Healthcare systems in these locations are swamped, and local governments need to push them far beyond their capacities. Authorities have no choice but to herd refugees into congested camps, settlements, improvised shelters and reception centres.
They lack healthcare, sanitation and potable water. Given how rapidly the novel coronavirus spreads in these conditions, these locations are ticking time bombs.
Free Children and Families Immediately
The WHO is calling for governments to release residents in these temporary accommodations as quickly as possible. Appeals to authorities include freeing children, families, and the wrongfully detained from these confinements immediately.
The UN healthcare body is also demanding inclusion for all refugees and migrants. They’re entitled to the same healthcare, prevention, testing and treatment as anybody else.
This isn’t just a matter of protecting their rights. It’s the only way to protect public health in nearby communities and throughout the world.
Highest Attainable Standard of Healthcare Vital Right
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued a policy paper on COVID-19 human rights dimensions. They realize that the right to the highest attainable standard of healthcare is among our most vital human rights. Governments must take all necessary steps to protect populations against threats to their health.
When we face a severe public health threat, governments have a justification, and even a duty, to restrict certain other rights and declare a state of emergency. Of course, these restrictions have to be legal, necessary, scientific, just, temporary, accountable and proportionate.
This means that we need to be vigilant about abuses to some other classes of human rights. Our rights to access to information and to freedom of expression pose two significant concerns.
Chinese Government Covered Up Origin of COVID-19
In China, the government covered up the origin of COVID-19. It downplayed the risks of infection and the human-to-human spread of the virus. Authorities detained and censored journalists, physicians and scientists.
Similar things happened in Thailand and Italy. On the other hand, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea were comparatively open and transparent, resulting in much better containment of the virus.
HRW also expressed concerns about the way governments impose social distancing. They remind us that under international law, quarantines and lockdowns must be lawful, necessary and proportionate.
Social Distancing May Violate Freedom of Movement
Social distancing also has the potential to violate people’s freedom of movement. Everyone has the right to leave their country, to re-enter their country of citizenship and to move around inside their home country.
They remind us that lockdowns on our freedom of movement must apply equally to everyone without discrimination. HRW also points out that, based on past experience, travel restrictions don’t accomplish much when it comes to disease control.
Human Rights Watch shares the WHO’s concerns about people being held in custody or institutions. They take it a few steps beyond immigration detention centres.
Inmates in Institutions Deserve Same Care as Anyone Else
HRW also points to prisons, jails and similar facilities. They demand that when authorities detain people in institutions, inmates receive at least the same care as anyone else.
The United States has the highest incarceration level in the world. Considering that, HRW recommends that inmates who are in jail only because they can’t raise bail and other low risk offenders be given early or supervised release during the pandemic.
Human Rights Watch understands the need for lockdowns in nursing homes to protect residents’ health during disease outbreaks. Having said that, they remind governments that everyone’s mental health also depends on family and connection with the outside community.
Everyone Has the Right to an Education
Another vital point raised by HRW is that everyone has the right to an education. As we know, schools throughout the world are currently closed as part of social distancing.
School boards and departments of education must do everything possible to minimize COVID-19’s disruption of learning. This can include using video conferencing technology to deliver lectures. We also need to accommodate vulnerable students, such as people with disabilities and residents of remote areas.
Even so, Human Rights Watch reminds us that there are also low-tech and no-tech solutions to teaching while maintaining social distancing. In many developing countries, classes can be held outdoors, for example, with children seated two metres apart.
COVID-19 Human Rights Will Become a Significant Challenge
The global pandemic challenges our creativity on many fronts. Addressing COVID-19 human rights issues will become a significant challenge as social distancing carries on.
We’ll need to discover new ways to contain the spread of the coronavirus without imposing undue restrictions on people’s freedom. This prevents the suppression of the disease from mutating into the oppression of the people.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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