The escalating Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic has challenged global health as never before. Within months, the disease swept across every country, exposing the fragility of our globalized world. Unlike anything seen since the Influenza pandemic of 1918, health systems have faltered under the strain of this pandemic, with cascading disruptions as borders closed, businesses shuttered, and daily life unraveled. As governments and international institutions seek to find a way out of the darkness, human rights provide a light to guide national responses and global solidarity in facing this unprecedented threat.
Human rights are central to safeguarding global health, offering global standards to articulate government obligations under international law. Advancing human rights under international law as a basis for public health, human rights have evolved to provide a normative justification and political catalyst to advance global health.
The right to health, codified under the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, requires national governments to take steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” and create conditions to assure “medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.” Seeking a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, the right to health extends beyond medical care, with a wide range of health-related human rights necessary to uphold determinants of public health. Complementing these substantive obligations, human rights frame fair processes in public health practice, with the human rights-based approach to health requiring that policymakers pursue equality, support participatory engagement, and facilitate accountability for rights violations.
These health-related human rights obligations provide a foundation for public health prevention, healthcare services, and global health solidarity in the COVID-19 response.
Implementing human rights in the pandemic response, states must take immediate and progressive steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As in the early years of the AIDS response, it is marginalized populations that are most vulnerable to infection. Yet protecting these populations will require restrictions on individual liberties to mitigate public health threats—as seen through mandatory lockdowns, mask requirements, and contact tracing. Where it is necessary to limit individual freedoms to address this public health emergency, governments must ensure that any human rights limitations are reasonable, proportionate, non-discriminatory, and grounded in law.
Beyond rights limitations, it is also crucial to consider underlying determinants of health amidst disease prevention efforts. Highlighting the interdependence of all human rights, physical distancing measures have posed inequitable challenges for a range of human rights that underlie public health, including rights to food and nutrition, safe housing, gender equality, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. The interconnected nature of health-related human rights requires a comprehensive response to secure the livelihoods of impoverished populations, adapt working conditions to lessen the risk of infection, and alleviate the impact of the pandemic on basic health needs.
For those who are infected, medical treatment will have fundamental implications for the realization of the right to health, raising an imperative to ensure appropriate COVID-related health care. With budget cuts in many countries eroding national capacity to provide essential care, COVID-19 patients have overwhelmed health centers. It is crucial that governments devote the maximum available resources to the progressive realization of the right to health, developing a coordinated healthcare response for treatment and recovery and mobilizing resources to secure necessary health care for patients (including ventilators and oxygen) and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and other frontline staff.
Policymakers must be held accountable for ensuring universal health coverage in the COVID-19 response. As governments falter in meeting their international obligations, accountability can be facilitated through human rights advocacy to defend marginalized populations, litigation of rights violations in national courts, and monitoring and review of state actions by the human rights system. These national and international mechanisms can ensure accountability for government efforts to realize human rights throughout a prolonged pandemic response.
However, no nation can do this alone. COVID-19 is a global public health crisis that calls for global solidarity, yet some governments have responded with nationalist approaches that ignore scientific evidence, repress vulnerable populations, and neglect coordinated action in facing this common threat. Despite repeated pleas for global solidarity, the rise of populist nationalism has curtailed international assistance to countries in need, weakened global health governance through the World Health Organization, and threatened the health and human rights of the most marginalized in the world.
The global health and human rights challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic requires a dramatic shift toward global solidarity in coordinating the pandemic response. Human rights law has long recognized that international assistance and cooperation is an obligation of all states in a position to assist. International support for the World Health Organization remains essential, as global governance will remain central to advancing human rights in global health. Given that this pandemic threat will only truly end with the development of an effective vaccine, rights-based governance will continue to be crucial in progressively realizing universal access to this prospective scientific breakthrough, bringing the world together through human rights to assure the highest attainable standard of health for all.
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