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Covid-19 Pandemic’s Human Rights Failures Persist

2 Years On, Recommendations to Recalibrate Failed Approaches

A health worker takes a swab sample of a man to test for Covid-19 in Ahmedabad, India, January 17, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File

(New York) – Governments should redouble efforts to uphold their legal obligation to ensure the highest attainable standard of health for people everywhere, Human Rights Watch said today, marking the second anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring Covid-19 a pandemic. More than 6 million people have died of Covid-19 in the past two years. Billions of people, most in low- and middle-income countries, are entering year three of the pandemic unprotected without even a single dose of a vaccine as high-income governments have thwarted a swifter, equitable, and rights-based global response.

Governments should not repeat deadly missteps, Human Rights Watch said in a series of reports with recommendations for reforming their approach. Stripping social protection back to pre-pandemic levels is especially dangerous because the pandemic is not over and low-income people continue to bear the brunt of its economic impacts. As some governments shift to “living with Covid” policies, older people and others at particular risk may feel they have to choose between staying at home or risk contracting the virus. The impact on children is no less severe, as many have lost up to two years of formal learning, and those most marginalized among them facing face the greatest loss. And we are entering another year of the pandemic with a huge and growing divide between the vaccine haves and have-nots. The pandemic is having a continuing human rights fall-out, and governments need to recalibrate their approach.

“Policymakers need to be conscious of how their own privilege may bias their perspective on the pandemic, and uphold the right to health for everyone, not just those in similarly safe positions,” said Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch. “Ending the pandemic is not the same thing as ignoring it. Thousands of people continue to die from Covid-19 daily, while billions who can’t get vaccines remain in danger of severe illness and death.”

Governments should not ignore the human rights concerns raised by taking steps to taper off proven protection measures like face masks and social protection measures around the world, while vaccination rates remain low between and within countries, largely based along socio-economic status. The right to health in international law imposes obligations to deliver on equity, including on access to information, adequate health care, and determinants of health such as food and water.

Global health experts have warned for years that inequalities were a major determinant of an individual’s or community’s ability to survive, and that those without access to resources such as strong health systems, health workers, medicines, and vaccines would be the ones to fall ill and die at the highest rate.

Safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines have existed for over a year. But pharmaceutical companies and wealthy governments like the US and Germany have refused to share knowledge and technology to expand and diversify the global production of more affordable vaccines, leaving low-and-middle-income countries to wait.

The rights failures that underly the high infection and death rates even though the authorities have the knowledge needed to prevent infections and deaths have contributed to prolonging the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said. The WHO director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, warned on March 6, 2022: “It’s too early to declare victory over Covid-19. Many countries are facing high rates of hospitalization and death. With high transmission, the threat of a new, more dangerous variant remains real. We urge all people to exercise caution and all governments to stay the course.”

Health authorities have indicated that they are well aware of the continued suffering caused by their choices, but they continue to roll back protections. On March 3, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines that lessened the recommended use of masks, increasing the risk of contracting Covid-19 for millions of immune-compromised people.

On March 4, the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said:

We in infectious diseases have long known that infectious diseases go not to places of wealth but to places of poverty and places that lack access to care. The first people who brought SARS-CoV-2 to the United States were people who traveled on airplanes, people who traveled on cruise ships, people who had the resources to do those sorts of things. But then it became a disease of the more vulnerable.

Some wealthy-country governments and pharmaceutical companies are undermining rapid and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutic drugs, and tests. The widespread availability and accessibility of safe and effective vaccines will play a part in protecting people from Covid-19 and curbing the virus’s spread. But the pandemic has laid bare the dangers of having manufacturing capacity for life-saving vaccines concentrated in a few countries where governments have refused to prioritize and mandate sharing intellectual property and technology for rapid diversified and global production.

World leaders should work together to expand and diversify production of safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries by sharing knowledge and technology widely with capable manufacturers and WHO technology transfer hubs, Human Rights Watch said. The US, European Commission, and other Western governments should work for swift adoption of a waiver of intellectual property protections on vaccines, treatments, and testing that has been stalled for over 17 months at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The People’s Vaccine Alliance and its members are holding events all over the world today demanding that world leaders waive IP rules and share technology behind vaccines, tests, and treatments.

“It is unconscionable that wealthy nations continue to reduce lifesaving health care to a tradeable commodity and do not use their power at the WTO to ensure that the right to health is prioritized over pharmaceutical industry and trade interests,” Hassan said. “Meanwhile, social protection, accessible health information, paid sick leave and flexible working arrangements, and accessible education remain critical, particularly for marginalized communities and people with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.”

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