Statement: Human Rights must be prioritized in responding to COVID-19

Publish Date: 
Friday, March 20, 2020

ESCR-Net, in discussion with the Board and members co-organizing upcoming events and actions, made the difficult decision to cancel all events at least through the end of May 2020.  In doing so, members repeatedly raised the need to advocate for the primacy of human rights in any immediate responses to COVID-19/the coronavirus, as well as in longer-term responses to address the structural failures revealed by this pandemic.

The pandemic and the response of state, corporate and other non-state actors have the potential to exacerbate precisely the kind of intolerable intersectional inequalities at the heart of many members’ struggles for social justice. Harms can be intensely magnified by stigmatization, racist abuse, xenophobia, scapegoating, draconian restrictions, fearmongering, ignorance, unfair burden-shifting and lack of appropriate care for those most affected. The pandemic will further expose unacceptable holes in universal access to healthcare and dismantled public healthcare systems; workers’ rights to safe and equitable conditions, paid leave and job security; equitable gender distribution and public provision of care; access to vital resources and public services, including education; protections against dispossession, including evictions and foreclosures amid quarantines and economic crisis; protection against gender-based violence, with incidents growing amid mandatory isolation; access to meaningful participation in policymaking; transparent governance; and more.

A human rights-based approach to the pandemic can draw on fundamental principles of ESCR, which demand timely, deliberate, concrete, and targeted official responses that prioritize the needs of those in disadvantaged groups and grave situations, while abiding by guarantees of equality and non-arbitrariness, and upholding rights to information, participation, healthcare and the underlying determinants of health, and security in the event of unemployment or sickness, among other rights.

At a more systemic level, addressing this pandemic through a human rights-based approach involves demanding states put people over profit, revisit priorities in public expenditure and resource allocation, and counter dangerous austerity measures that have jeopardized access to adequate standards of living, welfare rights, and social safety nets. Some governments are taking measures to prioritize the common good, even at the risk of limiting economic growth, and are doing so by appealing to a sense of collective responsibility. This could provide invaluable precedents for longstanding struggles to realize ESCR.

Indeed, many members around the world have long been operating in conflict affected areas and liberation struggles, fighting structural inequalities and impoverishment amid abundance, defending the environment and working toward climate justice, often while facing threats from corporations and state officials. These too often neglected crises also need urgent and effective responses, a fact that will only be compounded by the pandemic. In the face of global challenges, the Network’s Common Charter for Collective Struggle emphasizes the need to reclaim human rights, to connect struggles across regions, to center social movements and grassroots groups emerging from affected and resisting communities, and to articulate alternatives to the current dominant socioeconomic model.

Ensuring human rights for all is imperative in times of crisis and reinforces public health.

As we work together to advance human rights and social justice during this global challenge, ESCR-Net envisions creating space for member discussions, analysis and collective responses, attentive to the systemic failures revealed by and exacerbating this crisis, as well as the alternatives emerging from communities and ideally reshaping government policy and practices.  In the interim, we want to share some of the valuable statements emerging from members: