COVID-19 Requires an Urgent Response Grounded in Human Rights and Human Dignity

Ewelina U. Ochab
is a legal researcher, human rights advocate and author, regularly contibuting to such outlets at
Forbes. She is co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response. This blogpost arises from her role as moderator of a international panel for a Webinar held 16 April 2020 [1]  and is part of a Talk About Conversation on COVID-19 and Human Dignity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been shaping and reshaping our lives as we knew them over the recent week and months. The majority of us, confined to our homes, had to adjust to the new social distancing rules, working from home for weeks, move all social interaction to the online world of Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting and many more. And while we struggle in our own ways, it is crucial to remember that there are groups of people who are more affected by COVID-19 and the changes to brought to the world. This is not to suggest a completion over victimhood status but to recognize the particular situation, particular vulnerabilities that cannot be neglected when the impact of COVID-19 is assessed. And indeed, COVID-19 has had a proficient effect on the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, and human dignity.

 In many parts of the world, religious minorities have been subjected to severe treatment as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, and this because of their religious minority status. This has affected their access to basic services, as for example, medical and social care, access to food or other services that they would ordinary need during such uncertain times. For example, in Pakistan, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports that food aid is being denied to Hindus and Christians amid the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, as the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, emphasizes, religious minorities are sometimes blamed for the spread of COVID-19 and marginalized or targeted for violence as a result. This is certainly the case of Muslim minorities in India.

Prisoners of conscience, namely those imprisoned for the mere fact of practicing their faith, are at high risk of getting COVID-19 because of overcrowding and dire conditions in prisons, and at risk of dying in prison as they may not be provided with adequate health care. This concern is relevant not only in cases of  traditional prisons, as we know them, but also so-called re-education camps as those in China for the Uighur Muslims.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it brings fresh dangers to vulnerable communities, including Nigeria’s Christians. As Open Doors reports, Nigerian Christians are being increasingly targeted in opportunistic attacks by Islamist militias. Similarity, Aid to the Church in Need reports that Boko Haram and the Fulani militia have intensified their attacks against Christians in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mozambique, during this pandemic. The terror groups have used COVID-19 pandemic to attack the vulnerable religious minority communities. Understandably, many of these situation occur far from home, so it may be more difficult to feel connected with the suffering of these people.

 However, COVID-19 does not discriminate among its victims. And even close to home, there are certain groups that are more susceptible to it, including the elderly and vulnerable (because of disabilities or pre-existing conditions) members of our society. We all have heard some of the narratives that ultimately deemed their lives expendable. The narratives that, for example, COVID-19 affects only the elderly so we should continue business as usual or governments telling us that we should prepare yourselves to loose our loved ones without proposing decisive steps how to protect those most vulnerable. The narratives that many vulnerable people may not be admitted to hospital for treatment if they contract the virus, and some care homes asked to “check they have resuscitation orders on every patient” or encourage their patients or their families to sign the “Do Not Resuscitate” orders. The narratives that people over certain age should not be offered ICU beds or ventilators.

These are only a few examples from recent weeks how COVID-19 has been effecting human rights and human dignity. In all these cases human rights and human dignity is affected, in various ways, to various degrees. In majority if these cases the right to freedom of religion or belief is engaged as well.

These examples should make us ask a few very important question in relation to human rights, freedom of religion of belief and human dignity as affected by COVID-19. Furthermore, we should ask questions on how to protect human rights and human dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses needed will depend on the underlying issues. For example, to address the threat faced by prisoners of conscience in prisons, Sam Brownback, USCIRF and British parliamentarians have been calling for release of the non-violent prisoners of conscience. To address the challenges faced by religious minorities marginalized or ostracized because of COVID-19 pandemic, states and international institutions have been calling for ensuring the protection of human rights of the targeted communities. However, we must also recognize that the task is a difficult one. Some of the affected communities have been facing similar challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated them, but not necessarily created them. And so, even before COVID-19 pandemic, Hindus and Christians in Pakistan were discriminated against, Muslims in India were marginalized, Christians in Nigeria have been attacked, prisoners of conscience have been struggling with the prison conditions etc. And as before the COVID-19 pandemic it was difficult to engage the relevant actors to address the situation of these affected, the even more severe situation now are facing even more obstacles for a comprehensive response.

However, respond we must. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be grounded in respect to human rights and human dignity for everyone, independently of their religious or belief affiliation, gender, age or any other characteristics that may deem them more vulnerable to COVID-19. COVID-19 is the ultimate test for our humanity.

[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.