Can Human Dignity Help Heal Us In Our Coronavirus Moment?

Brett G. Scharffs is Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Rex E. Lee Chair and Professor of Law at  Brigham Young University Law School. This post arises from his particpation in an international Webinar held 16 April 2020 [1]  and is part of a Talk About Conversation on COVID-19 and Human Dignity.

There are no magic wands in figuring out how to respond to the global medical and economic pandemic that is coronavirus. We are learning as we are going. There is much to be said. There is more to be done.

But I believe there is something useful in looking to our existing resources—especially when we are in the midst of a crisis (as opposed to before and after a crisis, when we have more time and capacity for institutional design and re-design). For example, I find myself returning to the words of the Apostle Paul in Corinthians 13, where he speaks so movingly about charity, or pure love, as embodied by Jesus Christ. He speaks of long suffering, envying not, humility, being not easily provoked, endurance, seeking truth, and above all, faith, hope and charity, with the greatest of these being Godlike love or what the King James Bible translates as charity.

Another existing resource (the topic of a webinar to be posted here soon, and  of this blog) is human dignity—of all people, at all times, in all places.

Existing Concepts / Fundamental Values / Norms

Consider the concepts, fundamental values and norms that were articulated at the end of World War II, at the beginning of the human rights era. The men and women who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UDHR) identified human dignity as the central concept that serves as the foundation for human rights, the end goal or telos of human rights, and the metric for measuring success in the implementation or realization of human rights. Many of the drafters of the UDHR had personal memories of the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19 that killed as many as 60 million people worldwide, not to mention personal memories of World War I, and the much more recently immediate memories of the harrowing experiences of World War II. If there was one attitude that prevailed over all others it was the simple declaration, prayer and plea, “Never Again.”

These were not starry-eyed idealists, but they were idealists nonetheless—with sober and hard-earned understanding that it would take an articulation of ideals that were genuinely universal and deeply normatively attractive (even true) to be the foundational principles of human rights. Thus it is not accidental, nor is it unimportant, that the preamble of the UDHR begins with a recognition that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” (emphasis added). And it is not accidental, nor is it unimportant, that Article 1 of the UDHR begins by proclaiming that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Two Truisms as a Source of Consternation and Consolation

I have found myself asking the question: Is human dignity for everyone a true and useful principle at this time of crisis?

Consider with me two truisms (things we’ve been hearing a lot lately)—truisms that are both true and not, and thus can be a source of consternation as well as consolation.

  1. We’re all in this together.

First, we are all in this together. This is quite literally true. By its nature, a global pandemic is something that affects all of us, and the coronavirus is an invisible foe that is ruthless and relentless. But we also see that the coronavirus does not hit all countries, communities, or people equally. Through good political leadership and medical management, and sometimes due to luck, some countries have been hit much less hard than others. In an era of globalization (and skepticism about globalism and multilateralism), it has been interesting to see the reassertion of nation-states as the pre-eminent global institutions.

The impacts on communities and individuals have also varied dramatically. Consider basic guidelines concerning physical distancing (also sometimes called social distancing). Sheltering in place, staying indoors, and keeping a physical distance of at least two meters is sound medical advice. But doing this is much more difficult for some than for others, including:

  • People who live in crowded conditions, often with multiple generations in confined quarters (exposing those more likely to suffer severe outcomes to infection by those at lower-risk of the most dire outcomes).
  • People who do not have homes at all.
  • People who depend upon public transportation rather than private automobiles.
  • People who work in high-risk jobs (including both doctors and janitors who work at hospitals), or those who live with people who come home from such high-risk jobs.

Human dignity for everyone everywhere reminds us that while we are in this together, the coronavirus affects some of us differently. There is something remarkable about the sacrifices being made to help prevent the infection from spreading so quickly and broadly that it overwhelms our health care systems. For the young and healthy, being vigilant is a way of not only serving one’s own self-interest, but also of taking into account the interests of those who are not young and not healthy.

It is not difficult to identify places (physical locations) of significant concern:

  • Refugee camps and detention centers (consider refugee camps in Jordan; or the camps interring Uighur Muslims in China; or the Rohingya people in Bangladesh).
  • Prisons (including those incarcerating prisoners of conscience).
  • Densely packed urban centers in large cities such as Mumbai, Rio, Lagos.

Human dignity is not a magic wand that will solve the problems in all of these places, but I believe it is the set of lenses through which we should be viewing the problems.

  1. The coronavirus does not discriminate.

Consider a second truism: The coronavirus does not discriminate. This is also true in very important ways. The coronavirus is not a social construct; it is a biological reality. It follows natural laws, showing no favoritism. But we also are seeing clearly that the coronavirus does not affect everyone equally.

  • Many who are infected are asymptomatic (currently scientists find that perhaps as many as 80% of people infected with coronavirus do not show symptoms), and may not even realize they are carrying the virus, or suffer relatively ordinary flu-like symptoms; but, they can transmit it to others, who might get very sick or even die.
  • Those with certain pre-existing conditions are also especially vulnerable—those who are immunocompromised, those with asthma or other lung disease (such as chronic emphysema or bronchitis), and those with conditions such as hypertension (or high blood pressure), heart disease, or atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), those with diabetes, active cancer, kidney disease, those who have suffered a stroke, or dementia, or chronic liver disease, or are obese or HIV-positive.
  • Those who are older are much more likely to require hospitalization and to die than those who are younger. One of the brutal aspects of coronavirus is how the likelihood of death seems to increase dramatically for each decade older a person is.
  • Men seem more likely to get extremely sick and die than women.
  • Health care workers are especially vulnerable, working on the front lines of exposure to the virus. This includes nurses as well as doctors, as well as orderlies and housekeeping staff.
  • Others providing essential services are also at heightened risk—such as police, and other first responders such as firefighters and EMTs.
  • So are those who help provide the infrastructure for daily life (often in low-status and low-paying occupations)—garbage collectors, warehouse workers, delivery people, cashiers, people working in the food supply chain.
  • In many places, those who belong to racial or ethnic minorities are often much more likely to be harmed or killed by coronavirus, often reflecting deep social and economic inequities that pre-date the current crisis.
  • The list goes on.

Sheltering in place is a hardship, but it is also a luxury. Those of us who can stay home, teach online from home, join a Zoom conference or webinar as a replacement for in-person meetings, are relatively well off during a time of immense difficulty. The language of discrimination may not be very helpful in the face of a health pandemic such as coronavirus, but the idea of disparate impact is helpful. The virus may not discriminate, but our social and economic realities may result in effects that are very different.

The Punta del Este Declaration

The Punta del Este Declaration was created in 2018 by an international group of scholars, human rights activists, and religious and political leaders to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It aspires to reinvigorate and refresh human rights discourse at a time when human rights are under sustained pressure from a variety of quarters. It focuses on the important role human dignity has played in forming, guiding, and sustaining consensus on core human rights values despite tensions in a highly pluralized world, as well as the connections between human dignity and freedom of religion and belief. The text of the Punta del Este Declaration, as well as an account of its drafting and adoption, is available at

Here I will focus on just one sentence from the preamble of the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere.

The Punta del Este Declaration Preamble

At approximately the midway point of the preamble, it says:

Recognizing that the concept of human dignity emphasizes the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every human being; that it implies a right of each individual to find and define the meanings of his or her own life; that it presupposes respect for pluralism and difference; and that it carries with it the responsibility to honor the dignity of everyone.

Nearly every aspect of this sentence is meaningful in our current situation.

  • The uniqueness and irreplaceability of every human being—it is important to remember that there are individual human beings that lay behind the statistics that fill our television screens, and the charts that we (including me) obsess over.
  • Human dignity implies a right of each individual to find and define the meaning/s of his or her own life—we must be careful to try to respect individuals, including those at the portals of death; we must try to find humane ways to afford connections even when physical separation is required.
  • Human dignity presupposes respect for pluralism and difference—we are seeing this in the ways individuals, communities, and even nations respond to the challenges of the coronavirus.
  • We have a responsibility to honor the dignity of everyone—not just the old (or the young); not just the rich (or the poor); not just the healthy (or those with pre-existing conditions).

The most important part of the Punta del Este Declaration (we might suppose) are the words “human dignity” (and I would not disagree). But, equally important is the idea “of” and “for” everyone everywhere. The most important thing a human rights perspective can afford us at a time like this is a passionate insistence that every person matters; all people in all places.

This is a time of high political divisiveness. This crisis is unfolding in the United States just as the presidential primaries are finishing and we are gearing up for a general election. The impulses to politicize this crisis are difficult to resist. Whether, or more pointedly, the extent to which, we rise to this challenge will define this moment, and will define us in it. Focusing on human dignity for everyone everywhere is a way to try to avoid the (over)politicization of this pandemic.

In the two years I have spent working on this human dignity project, there are two things that stand out most clearly in my mind. The first is the generative character of human dignity: almost everyone has something interesting and insightful to add to our understanding of this concept, which is at once simple and clear, but which is also rich and thick. Second, human dignity tends to elevate rather than degrade conversations. Most political concepts become divisive quickly. It is possible that human dignity becomes divisive as well, but this idea—human dignity for everyone everywhere—I believe has a greater prospect for elevating our discourse than any other comparable concept.

When we look back at our responses to the coronavirus crisis, will we see in ourselves responses that were generative and elevating?

[1]  Freedom of Religion or Belief, COVID-19 and Human Dignity was the second in a series of webinars COVID-19 and Freedom of Religion or Belief, organized by the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies, the Center for Religious Studies at Bruno Kessler Foundation, the Center for Justice and Society at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) Law School-Rio de Janeiro, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School, the European Union Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the University of Siena.

Click here to see all posts in this Conversation.