Human Rights in the time of COVID-19

The issue of human rights seems to be overshadowed by the fear of COVID-19 and the emergency measures taken by the countries. Many countries have declared a national emergency while others have declared a public health emergency. There is an ongoing lockdown in many countries across the world since the past few weeks or month already. Even democratic countries in Europe like Germany, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are all imposing a strict lockdown although some are starting to ease it a bit depending upon the situation.

There are fears that civil liberties and privacy rights could be ignored or curtailed during the period. Some leaders will use this situation to strengthen their grip and hold on power. So, the pandemic may prove to be an excuse to many leaders to turn more authoritarian. Hence, the public needs to be aware and remain vigilant so that hard earned civil liberties and democracy are not at stake while already suffering from this COVID-19 pandemic.

Even in Nepal, the recent promulgation of two ordinances drew heavy criticism from the opposition parties, leaders within the ruling party and human rights activists. While the nation is under lockdown and people are forced to stay home, this is a convenient time for politicians to make such moves with fewer chances of any protests.

Besides, many Nepali people have lost their jobs at home and abroad. Many labourers are in a dire situation. Many Nepali students and migrant workers abroad are facing challenges and hardships, many of whom would like to return home. While it may be difficult to arrange flights for everyone to come back, the government should try its best to do whatever it can to assist them in any ways possible. While foreign governments are chartering flights and taking their citizens back, our government has not allowed Nepalis who have gathered at the Nepal-India border to return. They are forced to live in awful quarantine facilities as seen in the pictures in the news.

News stories of people walking home hundreds of kilometres because of economic hardships and fear of hunger while staying in Kathmandu have made headlines recently. Moreover people are staying in quarantine, and the government has passed guidelines related to it. Are the current quarantine facilities up to the standard and do they meet the criteria set by those guidelines? A news story has it that the isolation ward in Janakpur was rendered useless by the wind. The current weather is hot, windy and rainy, making many temporary tent quarantine facilities at many places less friendly and bearable to stay.

The government has arranged relief packages, and local governments are providing them to the people who meet the criteria for relief support. However, there have been issues about the distribution of relief being politically biased while there are also complaints regarding the quality of rice distributed. Besides, there have been complaints regarding shortage of PPEs and various private hospitals closing down under one pretext or the other. There is news of health workers being forced to work without PPEs or to leave the job while demanding PPEs. This is happening in the US, UK and even here in Nepal.

Besides, there is news of harassment, stigma and discrimination of frontline health workers, including doctors, who have been evicted from homes by the landlords or been attacked and so on. Unfortunately, this is a situation in many countries, including India and Nepal. There have been articles and discussion about issues of stigma and discrimination regarding COVID-19.

The overall issues of human rights that expand from right to food, loss of employment, relief distribution issues, quarantine facility standards, gender-based violence, safety and security at the quarantine facilities, monitoring and assessment of government's preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic need to be discussed. So, human rights monitoring in the field has become even more important with the lockdown and government measures.

Are the government measures appropriate and just? Are people’s human rights respected and are the people impacted by the lockdown supported by the government? Have the security forces used unnecessary power and any violent measures? Are the landlords waiving the monthly rent as requested or enforced by the government? How are women and children affected by the lockdown? Has the government tried to address the needs and health issues of women and children?

The children and youths are forced to stay home. Has the Ministry of Education tried to start some online courses, education programmes on television and so on? There are issues of mental health, and people may develop depression during the lockdown. Has the government done anything to respond to the needs of the people, especially mental health? A lockdown is not only forcing people to stay indoors, there are so many needs of people and issues that need to be addressed. Is the government fulfilling its responsibility towards the people?

There has been hardly any monitoring of human rights in the field during the lockdown or even during the period prior to the lockdown during the preparation of the COVID-19 response. Hence, it would be important for the National Human Rights Commission, other commissions like the Women Commission, Muslim Commission, and organisations like INSEC, CWIN, Human Rights and Peace Society Nepal and Amnesty International to closely observe and monitor human rights during the lockdown and pandemic period.

It is imperative to use masks and other necessary safety measures and maintain physical distance during the monitoring of the overall human rights situation and the situation of people living in quarantines. The lockdown needs to be closely monitored to see if the government is living up to its commitment or supporting the people in need and respecting human rights while ensuring appropriate and adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.