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Human rights lessons of the pandemic

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This week marked a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic as the worldwide death toll crossed the 175,000 mark, with more than 2.5 million people infected. Facing extended lockdowns and increasingly dire threats of a global financial meltdown, billions of people around the world are experiencing the effects of the pandemic up close and personal as a dominant feature their everyday lives.

Moments of crisis like this are unsettling. But they’re also clarifying. They lay bare truths that we have either forgotten or never fully internalized. Months from now, when the worst of the pandemic is past, there will be many “lessons-learned” exercises—evaluations of bureaucratic failures, emergency preparedness, and structural weaknesses in our health care system. But we don’t have to wait until this crisis is over to learn its most important lesson: “We are,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

That is the pandemic in a nutshell. From its quick spread across continents, to the disrupted global supply chains for life-saving supplies, to international networks sharing vital information on treatments and cures, the life-and-death connections between people and nations are now in stark relief. But most importantly, the coronavirus is demonstrating how human rights violations left to fester, even in societies far from our own, carry direct costs for all of us.

This “inescapable network of mutuality” is at the heart of the human rights idea. After the wreckage of World War II, leaders from around the world came together to agree on basic principles of human dignity designed to prevent future conflict. The centerpiece of this global framework, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, lays out civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights to which every human being is entitled. The radical idea embedded in the declaration is that each of us has a stake in how governments treat their own people.

The coronavirus crisis underscores the wisdom of those hard-won lessons. We see clearly how those who have been denied basic human rights will suffer its worst effects, and how rights violations exacerbate the spread of this disease and hamper the global response. Poor families who lack savings must choose between going out to find work and staying home to avoid infection. Refugees and internally displaced people who live in camps, where access to basic health care and sanitation are limited at best, are largely defenseless against dire prospects when the coronavirus reaches them. And global conflict will hasten the spread of disease, especially in places like Syria and Yemen where health care infrastructures have been deliberately targeted by warring parties.

Unlike many other global crises, the coronavirus affects each of us personally, and highlights how failing to protect rights somewhere else can carry consequences at home. Because of China’s original cover-up, the virus has affected people around the world. Because of Trump’s refusal to take the outbreak seriously, the United States is now the epicenter of the crisis. With high infection rates and easy transmission across borders and wealth gaps, so long as the virus lives on in one country, all are at risk. Inequality and discrimination means we are not all in the same boat—but we are all in the same storm.

Human rights violations operate to weaken the immune system of societies to address global crises like the coronavirus pandemic; respect for human rights should be the guiding principle for policy responses. For example, when imposing restrictions on movement, governments must ensure those most vulnerable are guaranteed adequate shelter, food and care. Governments that obscure the spread or hide accurate information from their citizens and the global community, or impose measures that harm populations at risk, put all of us at risk. International cooperation to protect people living in conflict or those displaced will be necessary when governments cannot provide for all in order to ensure the virus is fully eradicated. Global pressure and support will be needed to ensure that countries carry out equitable distribution schemes of vaccines and rally together to support communities with weak health infrastructure.

While the primary experience of many people during this pandemic is one of isolation, it’s striking how much we know about the situation of people in other countries—which governments are ordering lockdowns, how they are accessing personal protective equipment, what it takes to flatten the curve. Internalizing these lessons from the pandemic—and changing our behavior accordingly—will strengthen our capacity to deal effectively with other pressing global challenges, like climate change, economic inequality, corruption and mass migration. Only when everyone’s human rights are protected can we address these global problems.

Elisa Massimino is the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP). Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst at CAP.


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