A Human Rights-Centered Way Forward
NEW YORK, USA, 11th March, 2022 -/African Media Agency(AMA)/- The Covid-19 pandemic has now taken at least six million lives prematurely. Experts estimate a true death toll may be double or even quadruple that number, with death rates particularly high among older people. Millions more will grapple with the effects of “long Covid,” or disability brought on by their bout with the disease. Close to two billion schoolchildren and college students have had their education interrupted, some for months on end. Pandemic-related school closures didn’t just interrupt, but also abruptly ended education for millions of children, especially girls, ethnic minorities, and those experiencing poverty. Countless children were pushed into early marriage, parenthood, or child labor by circumstances linked to the pandemic. A half-billion people were forced into poverty or saw their poverty deepen, while billions of others are living through the consequences of a pandemic-induced economic slowdown.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the inequities that have characterized the past two years are only being further entrenched. Fifteen months after the World Health Organization gave emergency authorization to the first Covid-19 vaccine, huge disparities in vaccine access remain globally. While some people are receiving third and even fourth doses of vaccines, more than 85 percent of people living in low-income countries are still waiting for their first dose.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not over. As the third year begins, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Vietnam are each experiencing their highest reported wave of infections since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. The world over, many are justifiably wondering: What should have been done differently?
Human Rights Watch research over two years of the pandemic spotlights both governments’ failures to meet human rights obligations, as well as cynical attempts to use the pandemic as a ploy to expand powers, squeeze critics, and suppress dissent. Our research points to how things could have been different if human rights had been central in more policy responses. It also points to a more equitable way forward.
Here are seven ways governments could recalibrate their approach to the pandemic in year three:
- Protect Freedom of Expression and Access to Timely and Accurate Information
Access to timely and accurate, science-based information about the virus and governments’ responses is critical to stopping the spread of diseases like Covid-19. Yet, in many countries, even in the second year of the pandemic, politicians and policymakers repressed efforts to provide and share information, even engaging in the spread of misinformation. In India, during the summer of 2021’s brutal Delta wave, tens of thousands of people died during a surge in Covid-19 cases after the government failed to prepare adequately. Instead of a quick and transparent response, the government suppressed dissent and provided opaque information about the spread of the virus. Abandoned corpses along riverbanks in rural parts of northern India pointed to a death toll far above the official estimate. The surge in cases was exacerbated by healthcare shortages throughout the country, including testing capacity, medicines, ambulance services, hospital beds, and oxygen support.
US government officials admitted to not seeing either Delta or Omicron “coming” – but public health experts had been warning of this eventuality for months. The WHO’s chief scientists warn that further variants of concern may emerge, but in many countries where vaccine access is widespread such as the United States, United Kingdom, and much of Europe, authorities lifted or began to roll back mitigation measures in early 2022, despite increasing the risk for older people and those who are immunocompromised.
A history of misinformation, coupled with the government’s failure to reach marginalized populations, left many in Hong Kong – especially older people and those living in aged care homes – hesitant to get vaccinated. Now hospitals are struggling as Hong Kong faces the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita in the world as of early March 2022.
The presidents of Brazil and Mexico continued in 2021 to downplay the severity of the virus, promoted fringe treatments, and stoked a dangerous attitude of denialism. In Brazil, a congressional inquiry concluded President Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous Covid-19 response endangered the health and lives of Brazilians.
- Protect Healthcare Workers from Infection and Burnout
In Kenya, a haphazard, uncoordinated response affected the welfare of thousands of health workers, who went on strike from December 2020 to February 2021 to protest inadequate remuneration, poor working conditions, and shortages of personal protective equipment. In the Philippines, failures to pay frontline health workers properly and on time spurred some to quit. Neither dynamic was unique to Kenya or the Philippines. Globally, some millions of healthcare workers, particularly nurses, burned out from grueling work and quit the work force.
In Yemen, health workers struggled to get vaccinations that were intended for them as Houthi authorities obstructed distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in July 2021, and engaged in disinformation. In Australia, those working in aged care homes faced shortages of rapid antigen tests in early 2022.
- Safely Restore Quality Education for All Children and Urgently Tackle Education Loss
Schools entered the pandemic ill-prepared to deliver remote education to all students equally. This was due to governments’ long-term failure to remedy discrimination and inequalities in their education systems, or to ensure basic government services such as affordable, reliable electricity in homes, or facilitate affordable internet access.
In many countries, education systems struggled to overcome these longstanding issues leading to widespread education loss, particularly among the youngest children and those most marginalized. In Brazil, the government decreased federal resources for education, and in one instance, the executive branch attempted to block a bill that aimed to provide emergency funds to increase access to the internet for students and teachers.
Children’s success at learning remotely or independently during Covid-19 related school closures in 2021 was heavily dependent on the quality of their home accommodation. For example, in the United Kingdom, the poor quality and uninhabitable temporary accommodation being offered to families in need by local councils made it harder for children to find a quiet environment to concentrate.
- Lifesaving Health Products Should Be Available, Affordable, and Accessible
Inequitable access to affordable Covid-19 vaccines persists, jeopardizing health, lives, and livelihoods. Pharmaceutical companies and the governments that funded them have failed to reach agreement on sharing knowledge and technology to expand and diversify global production of Covid-19 vaccines. As a result, while almost 11 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally as we approach year three, in low- and middle-income countries millions of doctors, frontline workers, and people at high risk of severe illness and death are still waiting for their first dose. Despite some commitments allowing for the more diversified production of antiviral pills, as safe and effective treatments came on the market, some of the same dynamics we have seen in vaccine access have been replicated. This disparity, where people in low- and middle-income countries are at the back of the queue, isn’t the inevitable result of market shortages, but a direct result of governments failing to fulfill their human rights obligations to share the benefits of scientific research to protect the rights to life, health, and a decent standard of living.
Long before the WHO granted emergency use listing to any Covid-19 vaccine, a handful of rich countries pre-booked most of the world’s vaccine supply, meaning much of the world would struggle to get doses needed to vaccinate even their highest-risk populations. Costa Rica successfully convinced the WHO to launch a novel “technology access pool” for Covid-19 health products, creating a platform for developers of these products to share their intellectual property, knowledge, and data with manufacturers. In November 2021, a Spanish lab contributed antibody technology to the pool, and in March 2022, the United States National Institute of Health pledged to make contributions too. Separately, India and South Africa approached the World Trade Organization in October 2020 seeking a temporary waiver of some intellectual property rights until “widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity.” Almost 18 months later, their proposal remains in limbo, although the European Commission which had opposed and blocked the effort has promised to work with the African Commission to “deliver a solution” on the issue by spring this year.
- Emergency Responses Should be Proportionate and Nondiscriminatory
In the second year of the pandemic, governments continued to implement Covid-19 emergency measures that were, in some cases, a pretext to grab power and crack down on journalists, activists, medics questioning the authorities’ responses to the coronavirus, and political opposition groups. While governments have a responsibility to protect the public from harm including the spread of Covid-19, measures that were disproportionate or used as a tool of repression both flouted this obligation and exacerbated mistrust, misinformation, and public health failures.
In Sri Lanka, the police abused many and killed at least two people in May and June 2021 while enforcing Covid-19 lockdown regulations. For almost two years, until early March 2022, the Sri Lankan government used the pandemic to restrict the freedom of religion of Muslims, first requiring cremation for all people who died with Covid-19, then allowing such burials only at a single remote location. These restrictions ran counter to both Islamic faith tradition and the WHO’s guidance, without any scientific justification. In the Maldives, authorities used Covid-19 regulations in April and May 2021 to prevent protests over government inaction in prosecuting cases of sexual violence. Similarly, even into the second year of the pandemic in Poland, some protesters continued to face charges for violating Covid-19 safety measures when they took to the streets to protest a near-total abortion ban.
Distributed by African Media Agency for Human Rights Watch.