Upholding human rights in the wake of COVID- 19

By Sophie Nyongesa

Human Rights Day is celebrated annually on 10th December to commemorate the day the General Assembly of the UN adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR sets out a broad range of fundamental rights and freedoms to which all of us are entitled. The Declaration inspired more than 60 human rights instruments which together constitute an international standard of human rights. The Global theme for this year’s Human Rights Day is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. This theme relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on the need to build back better by ensuring human rights are central to recovery efforts.

The emergence of the COVID- 19 pandemic led different countries globally to put in place extensive measures in order to prevent the spread of the disease. These measures such as the domestic travel restrictions and the extensive lockdowns or curfews, restrict by necessity the freedom of movement and in the process, the freedom to enjoy many other human rights. For instance, Human Rights Watch organization stated that at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of Kenya’s dusk-dawn curfew imposed on March 27th to contain the spread of COVID-19. These measures have unintentionally affected people’s access to healthcare, food, water, leisure, work opportunities as well as education.

The COVID- 19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of those living below the poverty line as well as highlighted the deep economic and social inequalities, inadequate health and social systems that require urgent attention as part of the public health response. The health care providers have not been spared either, the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Doctors Union (KMPDU) reported that by mid-November, thirty healthcare workers, including 10 specialist doctors, had died from COVID-19. This has been attributed to inadequate Personal Protective gears for the healthcare workers who are at the frontline to fight COVID- 19. The adverse effects and fear that the pandemic portends is aggravating existing human rights concerns, such as discrimination against certain groups, sexual and gender based violence as well as limited access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Only quick and effective measures to fill these gaps and advance human rights can ensure we fully recover and built back a world that is better, more resilient and sustainable.

Human rights are key components in shaping the pandemic response, both public health emergency and the impact on people’s livelihoods and lives. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG), pandemic responses that are shaped by human rights result in better outcomes in beating the pandemic, ensuring healthcare for everyone and preserving human dignity.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) points out that human rights law recognizes that national emergencies may require limits to be placed on the exercise of certain human rights. The scale and severity of COVID-19 reaches a level where restrictions are justified on public health grounds. In order to avoid the possible pitfalls in the responses to this crisis, the OHCHR states that human rights are critical in;

  • Strengthening the effectiveness of the response to the immediate global health threat.
  • Mitigating the broader impact of the crisis on people’s lives.
  • Avoiding the creation of new or exacerbating existing problems.

COVID-19 is undermining sustainable development at a time in which efforts need to be accelerated to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, underpinned by human rights, provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable recovery from the pandemic. The United Nations Human Rights Office points out that upholding fundamental freedoms strengthens national responses and that human rights are needed to navigate the COVID- 19 crisis in a way to enable us focus again on achieving equitable sustainable development.

Everyone including governments and the private sector, has a role to play in building a post COVID world that is better for the present and future generations. A world where human rights are non-negotiable, a world where decisions made are in public interest and for general public good without infringing on the rights of the citizens and those most disenfranchised, affected and marginalized. Together in solidarity, let us stand up for human rights!




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