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Relatives touch each other's hand through a plastic film screen and a glass to avoid contracting Covid-19 at the San Raffaele center in Rome, Italy, December 22, 2020. © 2020 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP
  • Government policies and actions in the year since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic have precipitated human rights crises around the globe.
  • The pandemic and abusive government approaches have especially harmed the world’s most marginalized people.
  • Governments should have the moral courage and political will to put protection of everyone’s human rights at the heart of a post-pandemic recovery, end abusive policies, and cooperate on vaccine access for all.

(Geneva) – The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated human rights crises around the world, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. As the one-year mark of the World Health Organization declaring the spread of Covid-19 a pandemic approaches, many countries should urgently change course to ensure a rights-respecting exit from this public health crisis. Governments should work together to scale up vaccine manufacturing and distribution to achieve universal and equitable vaccine access.

The 54-page report, “Future Choices: Charting an Equitable Exit from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” documents how the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare systemic frailties in the protection of basic rights and spurred a cascade of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch recommends changes in approach to address and prevent repetition of human rights abuses based on its research throughout 2020 and early 2021. The report is accompanied by a series of essays on China and vaccine diplomacy, the impact of the pandemic on women’s rights, poverty and inequality, healthcare workers’ rights, older people’s rights, equitable vaccine access, and the rights problems created by using technology to combat the pandemic.

“Governments and corporations have the tools, including vaccines, to manage and end the pandemic, so it’s a matter of whether they have the moral courage and political will to make it happen,” said Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch. “To chart an equitable exit from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments should ensure universal vaccine access, or they risk further entrenching inequality and eroding human rights for years to come.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken the lives of 2.5 million people and infected at least another 110 million, leaving many severely ill. As documented by Human Rights Watch and numerous civil society organizations, human rights monitors, journalists, and other observers, the pandemic’s social and economic consequences have been widespread and devastating. 

While the scale and severity of the pandemic’s public health threat justified some restrictions on rights, many governments ignored public health guidance and even used the pandemic as a pretext to grab power and roll back rights, Human Rights Watch found.

Some governments introduced restrictions on movement that were disproportionate to, or inappropriate for, the health threat. Governments instituted discriminatory policies, and authorities enforced measures in a discriminatory way and with excessive – and sometimes fatal – violence.

The pandemic underscored structural weaknesses in public healthcare systems, contributing to massive inequity in access to lifesaving care. Governments cut back especially on sexual and reproductive health care. Healthcare workers faced serious risks to their health and safety. And Covid-19 has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on older people and people with disabilities, particularly in nursing homes or other communal settings where the virus can spread rapidly.

People in detention are frequently held in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation and hygiene or access to adequate medical care, putting millions of imprisoned people at severely increased risk of contracting Covid-19. While many governments released some people to stop the spread of the virus, these releases were too few and often excluded activists and critics, including those arrested for criticizing governments’ response to the pandemic.

Reported gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence against women and girls, increased worldwide amid the pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world closed schools in April, shutting out an estimated 1.4 billion students in preprimary, primary, and secondary schools in 192 countries. There are grave concerns that children who lost access to education during the pandemic are at risk of falling behind their peers, or of being pressed into child marriage or entering the labor market, making it less likely that they will return to school.

Many governments mandated social distancing, quarantines, and business closures, with an enormous economic impact. Low-income workers, many in fields like retail, restaurants, and the informal sector who are unable to work remotely, were disproportionately affected.

The pandemic further underscored the importance of protecting workers’ rights, particularly the need to guarantee paid sick and family leave. Economic support during the pandemic has gone a long way toward stemming the rise of poverty but it has left out many who urgently need support. Government reliance on poorly designed algorithms and technologies to distribute benefits has also delayed and denied access to critical support while causing privacy problems.

In the coming months, relief measures are set to expire in many countries, putting low-income groups at increased risk. Without greater measures to protect social and economic rights, and more economic support and equitable means of distribution, poverty and inequality are set to rise further.

Many governments also initiated and expanded digital surveillance to contain the virus, ranging from contact tracing apps to facial recognition cameras that enforce quarantine measures, to algorithmic risk assessments. Virtually all of these technologies pose serious risks to privacy and human rights.

Governments have also used the pandemic to crack down on free speech and peaceful assembly. Military or police forces physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19. In some countries, restrictions on free speech and assembly are still in place.

By early 2021, several vaccines had proven to be safe and effective and governments around the world began vaccinating certain groups. However, vaccine development has largely mirrored the inequities that marked the rest of the pandemic: rich governments made opaque deals and prebooked the vast majority of vaccine supplies rather than cooperating to ensure poorer countries’ affordable access to vaccines. These failures ensure that the pandemic – as well as the inequality and rights abuses that have flourished at this time – will continue in many countries for years to come.

International human rights law guarantees everyone the rights to life, health, and a decent standard of living, and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to make medical care affordable and accessible. In the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies, restrictions on some rights can be justified, but they must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary and proportionate to the goal they seek to achieve, and be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory.

“During the pandemic, governments have used the public health emergency to grab power, abuse rights, and systematically neglect some minority populations,” Hassan said. “Governments need to reverse their abusive policies and provide equitable vaccine access both to end the pandemic and to improve everyone’s ability to enjoy their human rights.”


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