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Human Rights and the Coronavirus Emergency

Human Rights and the Coronavirus Emergency

Friday, 11 December, 2020 - 11:45

The encumbrances imposed on the health emergency and the exceptional measures demanded by the need to curtail the coronavirus’ spread weighed heavily on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Right on Thursday. Isolating cities, banning gatherings, regulating sports, cultural and entertainment activities, as well as putting some projects and professions on hold and limiting freedom of movement and travel, stirred a heated debate about the implications of these emergency measures on peoples’ freedoms and rights and the Declaration’s various principles and values.

To start with, we have those who advocate the declaration of a health emergency, raising the slogan of confronting the coronavirus, seen as the mantra of the day, above all else, thereby standing behind all the restrictions governments impose on citizens’ freedoms and rights so long as these measures ease the threats facing us all. Their thinking goes: So long as the pandemic threatens everyone’s life, protecting the rights to life and health come first, as they are among the rights that guarantee humanity’s existence itself, even if this comes at the expense of other rights. They base their position on the international legislation stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself, which guarantees and understands the need for exceptional measures that restrict freedom in the event of life-threatening crises.

On the other side stand those whose minds are controlled by conspiracy theories. They can go as far considering the virus a mere novel means in the struggle over power and wealth between major states, a tool to restrict their health, virility and rights, seeing the goal to be the entrenchment of economic hegemony and redistribution of shares and spoils. They conclude that they must resist the various arbitrary measures and expose their selfish motives and totalitarian ends. Others among them go in a different direction, seeing everything that happened and is happening since the pandemic began as a game being orchestrated by what they call a “a clandestine global government” vying to control the world and remove the obstacles standing in the way of their interests and undermining their privileges. This would enable this government to shape the world anew and cultivate meek, submissive societies in which human rights have no place. They consequently encourage rejecting all exceptional measures taken by all regimes or governments on the grounds of confronting the pandemic, even if this leads to the worst-case scenario, spreads the virus and threatens millions of people’s lives, believing that the "clandestine global government’s" tricks would thus be exposed and that this would prevent it from reaching its goals. This applies to their call to refuse to take any vaccine for this virus, as it is a ‘measured’ dose aimed at killing free thought and stifling the spirit of change and rebellion.

Between the two, stand those who understand governments’ imposition of limited restrictions on people’s movement to ensure social distancing and the containment of the virus, such that the effects and ramifications of the disease are reduced. They are thereby accepting of the closure of borders and crossings, temporary halts to flights and bans against gatherings and activities. But they are also wary of these measures leading to the evisceration of their rights and violation of their dignity with time, worse still, to the nullification of their other rights and providing justification for these rights’ suspension under the pretext of maintaining public health. While those who are of this opinion base it on the various international and national human rights organizations’ discrediting of a series of reservations about taking exceptional and emergency measures, they also, like the latter, stress the need to safeguard the rights that cannot be restricted or violated under any circumstances. These rights include the right to life and protection from torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as the need for these measures to be based on scientific evidence, transparent, explicit, time-framed, constantly reviewed and implemented non-arbitrarily and non-punitively. Instead, authorities should gain the people’s trust, respect their privacy and dignity, which would compel them to take part in the effort to ensure that these measures bear fruit and reduce the risks to their health and that of society in general.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has provided regimes with an opportunity to bully and intimidate. But the degree to which this opportunity has been exploited varies from one country and another. The discrepancies stem from countries’ divergent political systems and also the extent of the spread of contagion with them. While most democratic governments were keen on transparency and clarity, laying out the reasons for the measures they implement and explaining their urgency and also cooperated and engaged with all segments of society, enhancing trust and encouraging them to take part in the effort to overcome this ordeal, dictatorial regimes did not deviate from their history of inflicting pain and continuously violating human rights.

How could a regime like the one in Syria, for example, provide clarifications about the exceptional measures that constrain human rights when it had been setting new benchmarks for devastation, murder, imprisonment and displacement, taking them to their furthest extremes and stifling the country with an emergency law for decades?! One should ask oneself, to what extent are these authorities, who have made their peoples’ lives and security situation unbearable and deprived them of their most basic needs and the necessities of life, concerned about public health? What is one to think when, as is typical for their handling of crises, the authorities rushed to deny that the virus is present in the first place, withheld information about its spread and the number of cases, and persecuted those who published information about it, arresting them on charges of spreading rumors and fake news? Or when its officials boast about their victory over the virus after they had been forced to admit its spread, and after having had already boasted about overcoming terrorism and an imperialist conspiracy- what then? Wouldn't the regime that invested in the pandemic for the sake of obtaining hard currency on its borders take advantage of the crisis again to get rid of the tens of thousands of detainees who crowd it prisons, suffering from torture, malnutrition and neglect of their health?!

In its spread, the coronavirus did not distinguish people on the basis of their race, religion or doctrine; it did not distinguish between men and women or the rich and the poor. It is as though, despite the harm and damage it has inflicted, the virus wanted to remind everyone of the principles of justice and equality and the need to respect humanity and its rights without discriminating between living, thinking beings made of flesh and bone. We could say it is as though it wanted to object to the rise in nations’ selfishness and their disregard of the catastrophes and suffering that befall others. Perhaps it wanted to alert the people of this planet that their fate is one and the same - and that openness, engagement and solidarity are needed if we are to emerge victorious and lead dignified secure lives together.

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