Health and human rights are inextricably linked in the COVID-19 response
September 16, 2020.
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, governments throughout the world have introduced emergency measures that constrain individual freedoms, social and economic rights and global solidarity. These regulatory measures have closed schools, workplaces and transit systems, cancelled public gatherings, introduced mandatory home confinement and deployed large-scale electronic surveillance. In doing so, human rights obligations are rarely addressed, despite how significantly they are impacted by the pandemic response. The norms and principles of human rights should guide government responses to COVID-19, with these rights strengthening the public health response to COVID-19.
There is an inextricable linkage between health and human rights, first identified in the early response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has evolved over 30 years to provide a human rights foundation for the COVID-19 response.
Human rights should guide government responses to COVID-19, strengthening the public health response to COVID-19 by: framing restrictions on individual liberties, managing COVID-19’s impacts on medical care, public health and social and economic rights, and realising global solidarity through international collaboration and assistance.
Many governments have introduced emergency laws in response to COVID-19 that restrict individual rights, including limitations on the freedom of movement through home confinement and limitations on the right to privacy through public health surveillance.
While pandemics may require restrictions of individual rights to protect public health, these limitations must be necessary (following proper scientific evidence), proportionate (to the public health threat and time limited) and non-arbitrary (non-discriminatory).
To ensure that public health measures employ a rights-based approach to health, governments must prioritise protecting the most vulnerable people in society through transparent policymaking and public participation.
Beyond respect for individual liberties, states also bear obligations under the human right to health to ensure available, accessible, acceptable and good quality health responses to prevent and treat COVID-19.
A wide range of economic and social rights are necessary to support underlying determinants of health through periods of physical distancing, including rights to work, social security, housing, food, water and sanitation.
Governments have shared responsibilities to provide international assistance and collaboration to realise access to food, essential supplies, and testing and medical support in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic through global solidarity.
Human rights are fundamentally linked to global health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The HIV/AIDS pandemic first underscored that rights-based approaches are one of the most effective paths to achieving public health, and this inextricable linkage between health and human rights has evolved over 30 years to provide a foundation for the COVID-19 response.1 Human rights provide a universal framework for advancing global health with justice, transforming moral imperatives into legal entitlements in key domains relevant to COVID-19. Rather than viewing human rights as placing unjustifiable restrictions on public health measures, they should be acknowledged as crucial to public health responses that employ rationality, proportionality and accountability, build public trust through transparency and participation, and prioritise the safety and protection of vulnerable and marginalised populations.
This article examines how human rights are central to three interconnected domains of COVID-19 responses: (1) the restriction of individual rights to protect public health, (2) the realisation of the right to health and its underlying determinants such as social security, food, water, housing and education in the context of health system responses and physical distancing measures, and (3) the fulfilment of international obligations of collaboration and assistance. Looking to international human rights law, we apply human rights to assess state responses to COVID-19 and also explore how human rights could better support policy responses to COVID-19. We find that the social and economic inequalities illustrated by COVID-19 underscore a key proposition of international human rights law—that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.2 Based on these interconnected rights, we conclude that human rights should guide what governments do to protect those most at risk from discriminatory and harmful state responses to the pandemic—framing restrictions on individual liberties, managing COVID-19’s impacts on medical care, public health and social and economic rights, and realising global solidarity through international collaboration and assistance.