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Why human rights should guide responses to the global pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has killed over a million people globally and disrupted healthcare and political systems, economies, social bonds and religious practices.

What can South Africa’s Bill of Rights and international human rights treaties contribute to coronavirus responses and recovery strategies in the country and globally?

My central argument is that human rights provide tools to help states build fairer societies and economies. Such societies will be more resilient to future shocks.

A human rights-based approach to the pandemic is based on values. It prioritises the most disadvantaged and vulnerable and it is holistic. It also highlights international assistance and cooperation.

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Value-based approach

The values of human dignity, equality and freedom lie at the heart of human rights, and are the founding values of South Africa’s constitution. These values require the state and private actors to recognise that every life is equally valuable. Everyone should have the civil and political freedoms – and the economic, social and cultural means – to develop to their full potential.

Governments can promote these values by acknowledging people’s agency. People should have meaningful opportunities to participate in response and recovery programmes. For example, a broad range of civil society bodies must get a chance to shape the budgetary decisions underlying economic recovery.

The goal of all response measures should be to create an environment in which all can live in dignity without excessive inequalities on grounds of race, gender and socio-economic status.

Setting priorities

Human rights help governments set priorities in responding to the pandemic. People who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable should be the central focus.

The pandemic and lockdowns have had the most severe impact on people living in poverty. In South Africa, that overwhelmingly means black people. Among them are people in overcrowded informal settlements without adequate water or the space to comply with social distance guidelines. Also harshly affected are workers in the informal sector, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Many have not been able to access economic relief.

Because traditional gender roles persist, women have had to bear the biggest burden of child care, home schooling and domestic work while trying to keep their jobs.

Human rights require states to put the needs of such groups first when it comes to budgets, laws, policies and programmes. Economic reforms and other pandemic responses should be based on a systematic human rights impact assessment.

Interdependence and accountability

The third contribution of human rights is that they oblige governments to develop a holistic, integrated response to the pandemic.

South Africa’s constitution and international human rights law recognise that all human rights – civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental – are interdependent and interrelated. This means the right to life and health must be protected through science-based measures. Governments must also protect people’s access to socio-economic rights like food, social security and education.

Countries without strong public healthcare systems, food distribution networks, access to water, social protection programmes or affordable, equitable internet access have struggled to cope with the pandemic. South Africa must strengthen its investments in socioeconomic rights and in the public service that is responsible for delivering these to people.

As the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has stated, economic, social and cultural rights are indispensable to pandemic strategies. Establishing universal healthcare systems and comprehensive social protection programmes will improve the resilience of societies to future shocks.

UN Secretary-general Antonio Guterres gestures with his hands while addressing a meeting with the UN emblem in the background

UN Secretary-general Antonio Guterres has appealed for global solidarity to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo / Handout

The pandemic has also shown the importance of civil and political rights and freedoms. Many countries, including South Africa, have adopted exceptional measures to curb the virus. These have limited, or even suspended, rights such as freedom of movement, assembly, expression and religion.

Lockdown measures have sometimes been enforced with heavy-handed action by security forces. People in informal settlements have borne the brunt of such abuses of power and violations of human rights.

While restrictions on civil and political liberties may be necessary to protect lives, human rights law requires that they go no further than what’s strictly necessary to achieve this goal. It also requires safeguards to prevent abuses.

By respecting people’s democratic rights and freedoms, and ensuring that limitations are not excessive, states help preserve trust in the legitimacy of the measures to contain the virus. Thus compliance is likely to be higher.

Effective remedies for human rights violations also help promote accountable government. A good example is the recent High Court judgment ordering the South African government to ensure that school meals are provided to all qualifying children, whether they are attending school or not.

International assistance and cooperation

The final principle that international human rights law, particularly the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognises is that of international assistance and cooperation. This principle acknowledges that the fates of all are intertwined. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted:

If one country fails in its efforts to control the spread of the virus, all countries are at risk. The world is only as strong as the weakest health system.

International assistance and cooperation includes ensuring universal access to the benefits of scientific advances relating to COVID-19 such as in testing, treatments and vaccines. It also includes debt relief and development aid where economies have been devastated. The principle promotes global solidarity, which will be vital in efforts to beat the current and future pandemics.

Human rights require states to respond to the pandemic in ways that reduce inequalities and poverty, and promote participation, accountability and international solidarity. They can help South Africa and all countries to emerge better prepared for future crises.

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