Coronavirus: beyond human rights
I live and breathe human rights, but what’s at stake is even more important.
I write this in haste, like everything that is being written about Covid19. Most of us outside China only started to take this threat seriously in the last two weeks. Scientists and politicians don’t know enough about the scale of the problem, let alone the solutions. Spain’s Prime Minister confessed that “whoever claims to know what needs to be done in this emergency will learn nothing from it.” In normal circumstances this would be profoundly concerning, yet I find his candour strangely reassuring.
As we brace ourselves against the crisis, valuable contributions have been made to examine its human rights implications. For example, Amnesty International has produced these preliminary observations on States’ international obligations. Independent UN experts have warned that emergency measures should not be used to suppress human rights. And academics have written about how States should respond from the perspective of the right to health and other social rights, and of freedom of movement and other civil rights.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a press release on March 6 to stress that “human rights need to be front and centre in the response” to Coronavirus. I tick all the boxes of the typical supporter of a statement like this. I joined Amnesty International when I was 15; have been involved in human rights activism for two decades; and teach human rights law at the University of Essex. I should agree with Dr Bachelet. However, I’m not sure I do.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that Coronavirus raises human rights issues. Restrictions on individual freedoms need to be set clearly in the law and must be both necessary and proportionate. It’s essential to ensure that measures don’t discriminate against or stigmatise any national group or and minority. While mobile apps may be helpful in containing the spread of the virus, we must remain vigilant about the potential use of artificial intelligence to gather private data.
Children’s right to food is at risk when free school meals are the only healthy things some might eat. Confinement may be necessary, but home is the unsafest place for survivors of domestic violence. Rough sleepers, refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners and people in care can find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations. The list could go on. States’ actions and omissions can turn global health emergencies into human rights crises.
Human rights are important. They always are. But I still don’t see them at the core of this unique moment in history.
Other things take centre stage in my thoughts these days. My family in Madrid and the Basque Country has been confined for more than a week now, and my partner and I have decided to join them from London. This is one of those rare occasions when the word “resilience” doesn’t sound trite. Every day I receive news and messages via social media with countless expressions of wit and solidarity from Italy and Spain, expressions that are both emotional and encouraging about what we could achieve together.
Supportive neighbours, humour, music, bingo and Zumba lessons from the roof of a block of flats – all of it shows the best of people. Family life is recognised as a right in international law, but it is more than that: it is one of society’s central pillars. What do we truly value when we are confined at home? We all know that overdependence on technology is dangerous for a number of reasons, but what a difference video-chats and social media are making this month.
Even politics looks different. When 60% to 80% of the population could be infected by a virus for which we have no cure, political priorities gain a new perspective. And what about the irony of seeing Morocco close its border with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and Guatemala doing the same with visitors travelling from the USA?
At the time of writing both my partner and I enjoy the comfortable position of being able to work from home. We are reasonably confident that our jobs are not at risk. We are also young and healthy and can provide for ourselves. We are privileged. The prospects are very different for the vast majority of people. Ten years of austerity have made dealing with the Coronavirus exceptionally difficult for low-and middle-income families in the UK.
Covid19 is testing the strength of our social foundations. For several consecutive evenings, Spaniards are leaning out of their windows and balconies to applaud public healthcare workers. I can only hope that some politicians will remember their words whenever we go back to “normal” - for example French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on 12 March that “There are goods and services that must be out of the laws of the market… This pandemic is showing that free healthcare for all, irrespective of income, background or profession, and our welfare state are not an expense or a cost, but precious goods, indispensable when fate kicks.”
Even the most libertarian of neoliberals are being reminded why the State is so badly needed. This is the first crisis in my living memory where all of us are truly in it together. Privileged people are feeling very vulnerable for the first time. Dealing with the virus effectively needs people staying at home, washing their hands, keeping their physical distance from each other, and covering their cough with their elbow.
But dealing with it effectively and fairly requires, among other things, guaranteeing an income for those who lose their jobs, appropriating privately own facilities like hotels, private transport and private hospitals, suspending evictions, introducing rent and mortgage payment deferment options, and ensuring gas and electricity supplies irrespective of people’s ability to pay.
This crisis begs for a bailout for the most vulnerable, a sort of people’s quantitative easing. This is a human rights principle as well: attention to the most vulnerable individuals must be prioritised in times of financial crises and emergencies. But the issue goes beyond human rights. We are talking about what a country wants to be known for, even what it is. Societies that prioritise fairness will do best out of this crisis.
Putting the economy on hold is unheard of in peacetime, and needs to be accompanied by extraordinary public investment on a scale we’ve never seen. New Zealand has announced a relief package that amounts to 4% of its GDP; the Spanish Government has promised up to 20%. A massive bill will be waiting for us afterwards. The virus is going to test the patriotism of the wealthy, measured not by the size of their flags but by how much they are willing to chip in.
This takes me to a final thought. I have made two choices. The first is to admit that I don’t know what needs to be done regarding public health. The second is to start from the premise that scientists and political leaders, regardless of their colour and ideology, are doing their best to reduce the number of deaths to the minimum.
People who are making these decisions - the most difficult in their lives - may get things wrong. They don’t have all the necessary information. They are unsure about what is likely to work. And in advance I say that I am ready to forgive them if they make mistakes. In terms of the timing of the confinement measures, I’ve decided to trust the leaders of a country that doesn’t even allow me to vote - politicians whose human rights record I have criticised many times before and no doubt many more to come.
I don’t even know if the decisions they are taking are technically the right ones. Scientists who know much more than me are clear that “there are very large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours.”
In this context, transparency is “the only real counter to our psychological biases.” As long as leaders are transparent about the evidence, I will meet my civic duty and sacrifice my individual preferences for the general interest of flattening the infection curve. Beyond human rights, this is the time for solidarity, kindness and collective responsibility.
I never thought I would quote three contemporary political leaders in the same piece, but this must be another sign of the exceptional nature of the circumstances: as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on March 11, “Let’s keep the distance now so we can embrace each other warmly and run faster tomorrow.”
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