The Coronavirus Conundrum and Human Rights

These are strange times. From left to right, no one quite knows what to do or who to believe. While the rapid spread of the coronavirus has rendered many of us bewildered and confused, the edict to physically distance ourselves from others has managed to highlight both just how vulnerable and interdependent we all are.

These are also extremely dangerous times. This is true not only, or even primarily, due to the deaths COVID-19 will cause, but rather due to the policies our governments are introducing or refusing to introduce.

As far as we know, physical distancing is very likely the most appropriate response to this pandemic. Yet this distancing is also facilitating an economic meltdown. This conundrum is at the crux of the current crisis – and perhaps also causing much of the bewilderment – since the best remedy for the outbreak itself produces dire effects, potentially much more harmful than those of the virus.

In order to mitigate such grim consequences, then, physical distancing must be countered with government social solidarity policies.

But as governments attempt to address the pandemic, we are beginning to witness a twofold approach characterised by governmental overreach on the one hand and by insufficient governmental reach on the other. Both approaches are likely to have a dramatic effect on basic human rights for hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, it is no hyperbole to say that more people will suffer and even die as a result of the way governments choose to handle the crisis than from contracting the virus.

Governmental overreach and civil rights

Once the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern”, many countries followed suit. Given the circumstances, these declarations make sense, but we also need to be aware that they tend to unleash formidable executive power.

The logic of executive power is straightforward: during a state of emergency, governments need flexibility to address emerging threats and to exercise all power vested in the state to alleviate the situation. While clearly the consequences of states assuming so much power varies, history teaches that emergency measures are frequently abused and at times become permanent. Indeed, they can provide fertile grounds for widespread human rights violations and may even provoke a transformation from democracy to a totalitarian regime.

Although we are still in the pandemic’s early days, worrisome tendencies have begun to manifest themselves in a number of countries.

From China to Israel, governments have required citizens to install smartphone apps, allowing officials to track individuals and determine whether they can leave their homes. In the United Kingdom, local elections have been postponed by a year and the police have been given powers to arrest suspected coronavirus carriers. Meanwhile, several countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as a justification to stifle social dissent, banning assemblies and protests.

And Israeli Minister of Justice  Amir Ohana decided to freeze court activities (thus postponing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial) before the country even experienced its first coronavirus-related death.

The fear is that the rapid adoption of such policies may well be the start of a much broader process curtailing basic political and civil rights. Where governments overreach in this way, they must be swiftly resisted. The different WhatsApp and other virtual groups currently being created within our communities to help those experiencing hardships will need to be mobilised to launch widespread opposition.

Implication of insufficient reach on economic rights

Alongside governmental overreach, we are also witnessing insufficient governmental intervention (often in one and the same country). As each day passes and more and more countries move to partial or complete lockdown, it is becoming clearer that we are entering a global recession, necessitating massive government investments to secure the livelihood of millions of people.

Across the globe, the multibillion-dollar tourism industry has been brought to a standstill, while schools and businesses are shutting their doors, and thousands of companies are being forced to decrease production or temporarily shut assembly and manufacturing plants. This is already disrupting global supply chains as well as demand for goods and services. In the coming days, then, we can expect to see a domino effect, which will lead to a dramatic economic collapse.

Millions of people who live from hand to mouth have already begun losing their monthly salaries (the right to livelihood), and thus will be unable to pay rent or mortgage or put food on the table (right to a standard of living). Many of those who become ill do not have paid sick leave, and for those who do, it seldom covers their actual salary.

As to the right to healthcare, we already know from Italy that even relatively robust public health systems find it difficult – and increasingly impossible during this pandemic – to address the population’s needs, and many coronavirus patients and others suffering from ailments not related to the virus will not receive adequate treatment. This is the direct outcome of years of austerity, where public healthcare systems were starved of resources.

In countries that do not have public health systems, like the United States, it is extremely likely that the predicament of those people who fall sick will be much, much worse. And the situation of millions of refugees trapped in camps – from Bangladesh through Greece to the US-Mexico border – is even more catastrophic given that most have no access at all to tertiary care.

To stop this egregious violation of economic and social rights – and to counter lack of reach – governments need not only to insist on physical distancing but must also adopt a series of progressive policies that are even more radical than those introduced during the New Deal era. Many ideas are floating around, but these are some of the most urgent:

+ A living universal income and a freeze on mortgages and rents for people under the poverty line, as well as for those who lose their jobs, the homeless, gig economy workers, the unemployed and small businesses.

+ Mandatory paid sick leave that matches one’s salary, so that poor sick people will not feel obliged to go to work.

+ Free and comprehensive treatment for coronavirus and potentially related symptoms, no questions asked (about immigration status), so that no one goes untreated because of fear or poverty. This could entail expanding Medicare to all Americans, for example.

+ Government investment in homeless and women’s shelters, and food banks. And massive medical aid to refugees.

+ These are, of course, just a few of the policies that need to be immediately institutionalised if we are to prevent the lethal violations that will inevitably arise from the economic meltdown.

Coronavirus as an Opportunity for a Green New Deal

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic can also be an opportunity.

As the crisis brutally exposes how neoliberal policies implemented over the past 50 years have rendered vast segments of the world’s population vulnerable, it can also – and should – be used to launch a global pushback campaign.

Solidarity with the most vulnerable alongside care for our planet can be the guiding principles for massive public investments. Indeed, citizens across the globe must use the crisis to demand the implementation of a Green New Deal.

Given the speed with which so many of the emergency measures have been introduced, we now know that dramatic transformation can be carried out. And quickly. The current crisis teaches us that neoliberal capitalism has no way of dealing with pandemics like this one. It is time for a new forward-looking vision – for all of our sakes. While these are indeed strange and dangerous times, they can also lead to new beginnings.

Neve Gordon is a Professor of International Law at Queen Mary University of London. Follow him @ nevegordon

Catherine Rottenberg is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

A version of this article was first published in Al Jazeera online.