Photo courtesy of Times of India

This year’s Human Rights Day theme is “Recover Better – Stand up for Human Rights”. The theme directly addresses the COVID-19 pandemic and tries to recover better from the global crisis with ensuring human rights. Although universality and inalienability are key principles of human rights, the international human rights law considers that human rights can be limited in an emergency. With the various religious leanings in Asian society that always emphasizes the citizen’s duties and responsibilities but these yet not give priority on the citizen’s rights. On the other hand, many developing countries view human rights as a Western concept but the new approach seems quite different from the traditional thinking of human rights. We must approach this crisis considering human rights that are critical for the response and better recovery. If we react to this crisis neglecting human rights and freedom, the consequences will become dangerous to the justice, peace and livelihood of the public.

The legal and political process must not be a threat to human rights in response to the pandemic. But some narratives of the authorities in reporting on the infected are absolutely in stark contrast to human dignity. Trapping the infected with camera crews surrounding them as media cover the stories is cold damage to privacy and dignity of the patients. An infected is a person in need of emergency medical treatments and help, not a criminal. Total disregard of humanity and dignity in media coverage is always dangerous. It becomes a scar to the character of the infected when treated as an enemy or threat to community health. Hate speech is the root cause of people trying to hide the disease and causing further spreading of the virus. Physicians and health specialists with experience in epidemiology are capable of controlling the virus. The political authority is responsible for providing the facilities and empowering the health sector to control the pandemic. Instead, we see General Shavendra Silva running the campaign front for the new government as the head of the National Operations Center for the Prevention of Coronavirus Outbreak. Thus, the government is alienating health professionals from providing precise information to the general public and is elaborating the solution of the pandemic to be a military mission.

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, every country in the world is now party to at least one human rights treaty that addresses health and patient rights. Yet harmful laws, policies, and practices routinely interfere with access to health care and increase vulnerability to ill health, particularly for poor, marginalized or criminalized populations. The most crucial thing in day-to-day life is for people to manage their health and self-sanitation without falling into poverty but many countries are still following harmful health policies. Violation of some health rights may end in death. Ensuring the health rights of every individual in society has become a must, especially in controlling the spread of the virus. The right to health is to recognize the right to live. No matter how dangerous the pandemic is, being free from the arbitrary arrests and detention, fair trial and protection of privacy must be ensured. Emergencies were declared in many countries without a minimum monitoring period.

According to the Pandemic and Human Rights report of the UN, “The public health crisis is rapidly becoming an economic and social crisis, and the health and human rights crisis is not two but one”. More than 2.2 billion people worldwide are without even the minimum sanitation. Regular hand washing for them is not an option where water facilities are insufficient. Keeping the one meter social distance is not a practical thing for the 1.8 billion people who live in densely populated housing schemes or flats. The homeless community quickly becomes infected with the virus. Without clean water and basic sanitation, the lives of slum dwellers are at high risk as they have no access to frequent hand washing and self-quarantine facilities. However, the virus propagates rapidly in the presence of poverty.

High-tech flying cameras used by the security forces can easily capture the behavior of people even in the dark. Violations of human rights and fundamental freedom and privacy during the pandemic have increased due to the widespread use of drones in China. Military regimes have used online drone technology to restrict individual freedom, to warn and even in punishing. In Sri Lanka, the government’s use of high-tech flying cameras in lockdown areas in response to the pandemic is a blatant violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Army drones monitor the human behavior in the lockdown areas but they do not carry first aid to people suffering from ill health. Government flying cameras violate the privacy of self-quarantining individuals and have carelessly failed to facilitate them with medicinal needs. But these drones have proven to work well in isolating the victims from their human rights. Even during the big lockdown, the government issued utility bills and credit bills with taking no regard to providing essential food and medicine in most parts of the country. Thus, flying cameras are not an effective solution for the virus.

We need to reconsider how to deal with harmful speech while protecting freedom of expression. Freedom of the press and the right to information are essential human rights in a progressive society even during the virus. If the access to information is limited, the risk of infection skyrockets. One can express their opinion in any situation and free ideas do not always have to be the right opinion. The arbitrary arrests, detentions and prosecutions have increased globally on sharing fake news. Sharing information is especially important on the pandemic because, without accurate data, we cannot be protected from the virus. Scientific data and information on the pandemic are needed to develop drugs and vaccines for the virus. Even social distancing can only be maintained on accurate information. Authoritarian and populist leaders have distorted the truth and important information. They seem to rely on personal beliefs and mythical solutions. During the pandemic, people should trust the opinions of experts not politicians.

The pandemic is a threat to the human family. It is enough to have the virus in even one community because the virus does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion or color. Even one case of discrimination against communities puts all of us at risk. Some leaders described the pandemic as “foreigners’ disease”, which can even raise disunity among the nations. The reality is not easy of course, lives are insecure without facilities for the doctors and health staff, regardless of local or foreign differences. The pandemic has exacerbated the abuse and discrimination against women working in low wage, part time occupations.

Solutions have to be found for the pandemic but there is a need to protect democracy. To save lives, human rights must be at the forefront of the fight against the virus. It provides good guidance on how to deal with emergencies and effectively enable community contributions and capabilities to fight the virus. Most importantly humanity, mutual respect and solidarity must be included in governing the human family and strengthening the power to face the pandemic. When we recover we should be better than before in humanity and dignity. If we want to be better soon we must stand up for human rights.