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School workers load food packs as they distribute meals to students at Fairfield Middle School in Richmond, Virginia, March 18, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Steve Helber

(New York) – Governments should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by prioritizing the right to health for all and respect for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report.

The report, “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response,” analyzes government obligations and the human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak along with examples of responses so far. Human Rights Watch proposes recommendations for governments to address the outbreak while respecting fundamental human rights, including the rights to health, free expression, nondiscrimination, and freedom of movement.

Police patrol near the Arc de Triomphe on the first day of confinement due to COVID-19, Paris, France, March 17, 2020.

This document provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak and recommends ways governments and other actors can respect human rights in their response.


“As governments are starting to scale-up their public health response, the threat posed by COVID-19 is reason to reaffirm, not abandon, everyone’s rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “That means prioritizing science over politics, caring for those most at risk, avoiding censorship, limiting lockdowns, and building the public trust that is essential to an effective response.”

Governments should avoid sweeping and overly broad restrictions on movement and personal liberty, rely upon voluntary social distancing, and move toward mandatory restrictions only when scientifically warranted and necessary and when systems to support those affected can be ensured. When quarantines or lockdowns are imposed, governments are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and care-giving support. They should address the special concerns of people in prisons, jails, and migrant detention centers, older people, and people with disabilities in institutions.

In a number of countries, the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed shortcomings in public health and social welfare protection systems that make it harder to protect at-risk populations and reduce disease transmission. Governments should scale-up information campaigns to ensure that people are aware of the risk of COVID-19 and of strategies to avoid infection. They should ensure that everyone can access essential health care, including migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees; target relief to assist affected low-wage workers; and address the disproportionate impact on women and girls. They should also take specific policy measures to fulfill the right to education – even if schools are temporarily closed.

Since a new coronavirus was first identified in December in Wuhan, China, Human Rights Watch has reported on rights abuses linked to the Chinese government’s authoritarian response, risks to prisoners and detainees in the United States, Syria, and Iran, the impact on older people, school closures in the United Kingdom, the collapsing health system in Venezuela, and other human rights impacts of the outbreak and response measures. 

“The best way to combat COVID-19 is to be scrupulously honest with the public, restrict movement only as needed to limit transmission, and address those most at risk,” Roth said. “The coronavirus knows no borders and has shown that our own health is only strong as that of the person standing next to us. Its rapid spread reminds us of our global connectedness and shared responsibility.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on COVID-19 and health, please visit:

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