COVID-19 Guidance issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right

COVID-19 is a test of societies, of governments, of communities and of individuals. It is a time for solidarity and cooperation to tackle the virus, and to mitigate the effects, often unintended, of measures designed to halt the spread of COVID-19.  Respect for human rights across the spectrum, including economic and social rights, and civil and political rights, will be fundamental to the success of the public health response.

Access to health care

  • Health strategies should address not only the medical dimensions of the epidemic but also the human rights and gender-specific consequences of measures taken as part of the health response.
  • Treatment should be available to everyone without discrimination. This means ensuring that no one is denied treatment because they lack the means to pay for it, or because stigma prevents from getting treatment.

Emergency measures

  • Governments have to take difficult decisions in response to COVID-19. International law allows emergency measures in response to significant threats – but measures should be proportionate to the evaluated risk, necessary and applied in a non-discriminatory way. This means having a specific focus and duration, and taking the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.
  • With regard to COVID-19, emergency powers must be used for legitimate public health goals, not used as basis to quash dissent or silence the work of human rights defenders or journalists. Some rights are non-derogable, including the principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition of collective expulsion, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, the use of arbitrary detention, and others.
  • Governments should inform the affected population of what the state of emergency means, where it applies and for how long it is intended to remain in effect.
  • As the crisis passes, it will be important for Governments to return life to normal and not use emergency powers to indefinitely regulate day-to-day life, recognising that the response must match the needs of different phases of this crisis.

Leaving no one behind

  • All societies include people who are marginalised and face difficulties accessing public information and services for a variety of reasons, some of them reflecting entrenched discrimination or political divides. COVID-19 information and response efforts will need to take particular care to identify people who may be at risk of being missed or excluded, such as national, ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, older persons, persons with disabilities, or LGBTI people.
  • National Human Rights Institutions and civil society can assist in identifying people who may otherwise be missed or excluded, supporting the flow of information to these communities, and providing feed-back to authorities on the impact of measures on communities.

Housing

  • As people are being called upon to stay at home, it is vital that Governments take urgent measures to help people without adequate housing. COVID-19 measures for staying at home and practising social distancing should reflect that this is extremely hard for some – for example people living in overcrowded conditions, and those lacking access to water and sanitation.
  • Good practices for addressing people living in inadequate housing and the homeless include providing emergency housing (including using vacant and abandoned housing units, available short-term rentals) with services for those who are affected by the virus and must isolate.
  • Authorities should take particular care to prevent additional people from becoming homeless – for example as people face eviction when loss of income makes it impossible to pay mortgages and rents. Good practices such as moratoriums on evictions, deferrals of mortgage payments should be broadly replicated.
  • When and where containment measures are enforced, no one should be punished because they are homeless or live in inadequate housing.

People with disabilities

  • Containment measures, such as social distancing and self-isolation, need to take account of the needs of people who rely on the support of others to eat, dress and bathe.
  • Many persons, including persons with disabilities, rely on home and community services. These services should support minimising risk, and States should put in place additional measures to guarantee the continuity of support for people with disabilities throughout the crisis. Should restrictions on movement impede existing family and social support networks, they should be replaced by other services.
  • Access to additional financial aid will also be crucial for people with disabilities and their families falling, as many depend on services that have been suspended, and may lack the resources to stockpile food and medicine or pay for home delivery.

People in detention and institutions

  • People deprived of their liberty, including in prisons, pre-trial detention, immigration detention, institutions, and other places of detention are at heightened risk of infection in the case of an outbreak. There is a high risk of contamination and social distancing difficult to achieve. Their situation should be specifically addressed in crisis planning and response.
  • States should adopt special measures to ensure access to information, preventive and other health care for all persons deprived of their liberty, and urgently explore options for release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention.
  • The situation of people with disabilities living in institutions is particularly grave. Limiting contact with families may be justified as part of emergency health measures but may result in people with disabilities being further exposed to neglect and abuse.


Information and Participation

  • Relevant information on the COVID-19 pandemic and response should reach all people, without exception. This requires making information available in readily understandable formats and languages, and adapting information for people with specific needs, including the visually- and hearing-impaired, and reaching those with limited or no ability to read.
  • Internet access is essential to ensuring that information reaches those affected by the virus. Governments should end any internet shutdowns, ensure the broadest possible access to internet service, and take steps to bridge digital divides, including the gender gap.
  • People have a right to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Being open and transparent, and involving those affected in decision-making is key to ensuring people participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population.
  • Medical professionals and relevant experts, including scientists, must be able to speak freely and share accurate and vital information with each other and the public. Concerted efforts should be made at the international and national levels to counter false or misleading information that fuels fear and prejudice.
  • Incorporating the perspectives, voices and knowledge of women in outbreak preparedness and response is essential, including ensuring their representation and leadership roles in global, regional and national COVID-19 spaces.

Stigmatisation, xenophobia, racism

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is generating a wave of stigma, discrimination, racism and xenophobia against certain national and ethnic groups. We need to work together to push back against this trend, including by referring to this disease as COVID-19, rather than using a geographic reference.
  • Political leaders and other influential figures should speak out forcefully against the stigma and racism this crisis has generated and must at all costs avoid fuelling the fire of such discrimination. States should act quickly to counter rhetoric that stokes fear, and ensure their responses to COVID-19 do not make certain populations more vulnerable to violence and discrimination.
  • The dissemination of accurate, clear and evidence-based information and awareness-raising campaigns are the most effective tools against discrimination and xenophobia, which feed on misinformation and fear. Additional efforts are needed to monitor incidents of discrimination and xenophobia, and responses to any incidents should be swift and well-publicised.

Migrants and Refugees

  • Migrants and refugees face particular risks, as they may be confined to camps and settlements, or living in urban areas with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and overstretched or inaccessible health services.
  • Migrants often face obstacles in accessing health care, including language and cultural barriers, costs, lack of access to information, discrimination and xenophobia. Migrants in an irregular situation can be unable or unwilling to access health care or provide information on their health status because they fear or risk detention, deportation or penalties as a result of their immigration status.
  • States should take specific actions to include migrants and refugees in national COVID-19 prevention and response. This should include ensuring equal access to information, testing, and health care for all migrants and refugees, regardless of their status, as well as firewalls to separate immigration enforcement activities from the ability of migrants and refugees to access health and other essential services.
  • International support is urgently needed to help host countries step up services – both for migrants and for local communities – and to include them in national surveillance, prevention and response arrangements. Failure to do so will endanger the health of all – and risk heightening hostility and stigma. Specific steps should also be taken to counter anti-migrant hostility and xenophobia.
  • It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution from accessing safety and protection.

Social and Economic Impacts

  • The right to education needs to be protected in the case of school closures; for example, and where possible, through online learning. Girls may be disproportionately affected, as many already face significant obstacles to go to school, and may now be expected to take on increased care work at home. Girls and boys may also lose access to nutritious food and other services schools often provide.
  • Good practices by governments, the public and private sector, international and national organisations to alleviate both the negative socio-economic effects of this crisis should be shared.
  • The occupational health and safety of those working during this crisis, particularly health workers, should be assessed and addressed. No one should feel forced to work in conditions that unnecessarily endanger their health because they fear losing a job or a paycheck.
  • Immediate economic relief measures such as guaranteed paid sick leave, extended unemployment benefits and universal basic income can help safeguard against the acute effects of the crisis.

Privacy

  • Health monitoring includes a range of tools that track and monitor the behaviour and movements of individuals. Such surveillance and monitoring should be specifically related to and used for public health-specific aims and should be limited in both duration and scope as required in the particular situation.

Gender

  • Targeted measures to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on women and girls are needed. Women and girls are likely to face increase care-giving roles in the home, putting them under additional stress and potentially increasing their risk of infection.
  • In many countries, women may disproportionate risks in the job sector as well, where many women work in informal sector (e.g. domestic workers, nannies, agriculture or supporting family businesses) and may be the first to lose their jobs or suffer from the consequences of the crisis given that they do not have social security, health insurance, or paid leave. Many women are also dependent on accessibility and affordability of childcare, which is now decreasing, further restricting their ability to work and earn an income.
  • Older women are more likely to live in poverty or with low or no pensions which may exacerbate the impact of the virus, and limit their access to goods, food, water, information and health services.
  • Restrictive public health measures, including quarantines, are increasing exposure to gender-based violence, particularly intimate-partner violence and domestic violence. Support services and safe shelters for victims of gender-based violence need to be continued as a priority, including effective referrals, and ensuring the availability and accessibility of avenues to safety for victims. Information on hotlines and online services should be included in COVID-19 messaging.
  • Sexual and reproductive health services should be seen as a life-saving priority and integral to the response, including access to contraception, maternal and newborn care; treatment of STIs; safe abortion care; and effective referral pathways. Efforts should be made not to divert resources away from essential sexual and reproductive health services, which would impact the rights and lives of women and girls in particular.

Water and sanitation

  • Washing hands with soap and clean water is the first line of defence against COVID-19, but 2.2 billion persons lack access to safe water services. Addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, including those with inadequate access to water, is essential to ensuring success in the global struggle against COVID-19.
  • Immediate measures that can help include prohibiting water cuts to those who cannot pay water bills, providing water free of cost for the duration of the crisis to people in poverty and those affected by the upcoming economic hardship.
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