Human Rights in the Fight Against COVID-19

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Human Rights in the Fight Against COVID-19

The Dilemmas for Accountable Leadership and Responsible Citizenship
In the fight against COVID-19, the world is engaged in a fight for life. Over one million people globally have been infected by the pandemic and over 60 000 people have already lost their lives. If the pandemic maintains its control until August 2020, the death toll could rise beyond a million. The global economy by the time of the compilation of this report had lost USD 3.2 trillion. More than the economic cost of the crisis, there is a human cost which cannot be simply calculated in the number of the dead. There is pain, suffering, trauma and social breakdown that accompanies the loss of a single person. This fight is made worse by the fact that the global health system is not capable of responding as swift as it ought to. We are not equipped to deal with this pandemic. Our systems are slow, our stocks are depleted and the people at the frontline are perishing.

Alongside many issues, the fight against COVID-19 brings into sharp focus the role of leadership. When one looks at the map of the spread of the pandemic, it reflects back on how different leaders have been able to deploy different tactics to deal with the pandemic. China which runs a command culture has treated COVID-19 as a military invasion, raising an army of doctors from the entire country to march on Wuhan. They have utilized their military surveillance systems to track the virus. Massive investments went into billboards and television advertising to raise national consciousness. This has seemed to work. In the USA, President Donald Trump, with much reluctance, has evoked the Defense Production Act to compel companies to manufacture items in short supply that would aid in the response to the deadly coronavirus. In South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, a lock-down has been decreed. All these measures have come with a great measure of sacrifice. In this fight, which has now been coined in military terms, what is the place for human rights?

We have learnt, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that there is no hierarchy to rights. They are all interdependent. The demarcations are artificial and illusory. The right to life would not be attainable if we did not protect the right to health. And yet the right to health would not make sense if people did not exercise political choices that determine who runs our health system. However, in practice, we know we are ready to suspend or limit some rights when the situation demands. But beyond the limits of freedoms, the question of human rights as regards COVID 19 is not really about insisting on freedoms in the face a deadly situation.

Before I gave this address to the National Movement of Catholic Students, one of the participants in the conversation said to me, ‘Who would insist on human rights when we are faced with this kind of situation.’ This question presumes that the question of human rights is a different fight from the Fight Against COVID-19. The truth is, human rights are at the centre of the fight against COVID-19. This is because if we had paid attention to our human rights obligations, it is possible we would not be suffering the COVID-19 pandemic at the current scale. It means we would have put our priorities right, equipped our hospitals with tools and resources to fight against any pandemic, COVID-19 involved, and invested in preventive medical research. Medical researchers know that COVID-19 has been coming for a long time. It has just been a question of time and how prepared we are. Instead, we chose to invest in militarism, even in a country like Zimbabwe that is not at war, at the expense of investing in health. This is also true for the developed world where the war technology remains far far more advanced than the health technology. This is what Bill Gates warned in 2015 that we are focusing on war games, and yet the real threat to humanity is not war. In Zimbabwe we ignored the warnings by the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association that we have a problem with our health care system. The fight against COVID-19 is a human rights fight. A fight to preserve the right to life, and all the rights that life brings us. If we understand it this way, then all the other human rights issues that we will raise will fall into perspective.

The fight against COVID is an accountability issue. We raise the question of human rights in the fight against COVID-19 because the fight against COVID-19 goes beyond today. It speaks into the future and the vision for humanity. How do we resolve COVID-19 in a manner which ensures Never Again! We can only ensure ‘Never Again!’ if we understand why we are in the place where we are. Then we can ensure accountability for past omissions as well as collective responsibility for the next steps. It is a governance issue. It is an issue of transparency and accountability. This is because the state has the responsibility to protect. This means designing national programmes and budgets in a manner that addresses the most pressing threats to our humanity and in promotion of our prosperity. This is not fault-finding. It is public accountability.

These are human rights issues that are raised by the mere existence of COVID-19.

However, at the second level, there are human rights issues that rise out of the responses that society undertakes to deal with COVID-19. Fear does things to people. When people are faced with threats to their existence, they are willing to give up on many things to preserve their existence. But an existence that takes away human dignity is probably not worth the sacrifice. This is why Barack Obama, in taking the oath to the Presidency stated, “…we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both.” In the face of fear, tyranny emerges and it seems to make sense for people to submit their rights in exchange for the promise of life. This is the theory that feeds poverty in many villages where villagers have to beg for handouts from the ruling elite that never invests in real empowerment because empowerment takes away their dependence on a political system. As we confront COVID-19, we too must refuse the myth that we have to choose. We can fight COVID-19 and still protect our dignity, the weak and the vulnerable.

In other countries where a lockdown was deemed necessary by experts, leaders who owe loyalty to big businesses refused to implement such measures because of its adverse effects on the economy. In Zimbabwe, where a lockdown was deemed necessary because of the weak health care systems, it was implemented without attention to loss of livelihoods and without a plan how to save small businesses from imminent collapse. There was no assessment of the capacity of the population to endure a 21-day lockdown. The result was disastrous but not unforeseeable. The mere announcement of the lock down created pockets where infection was possibly accelerated as people crowded in banks and supermarkets to grab some food. In the latest report, ‘Their Views Matter: Community Responses to COVID 19 Measures,’ ZimRights notes that thousands of urban dwellers thronged Mbare Musika and left the city for the rural areas. A ZimRights member reports that in Buhera, urban dwellers thronged townships forming crowds at beerhalls, raising the fear that they would spread the disease in a community that is not equipped with the consequences. In Bulawayo, police were photographed loading people in trucks, breaking social – distancing rules. All over the country, police themselves have been seen driving around in packed trucks without protective clothes and without observing rules of social distancing. This speaks to a measure that was implemented without attention to the harm it would cause, even to the extent of not only endangering state employees implementing the measure but also spreading the disease even more and wider. This is a human rights issue that touches both the question of inclusion in decision making as well as implementation without doing harm to the community. Images of police officers burning vegetables reflect not the war against COVID 19, but rather, the war on livelihoods.

In the same manner, the fight against COVID 19 must acknowledge that the enjoyment of certain rights is intrinsically linked to whether or not we will win. These are issues like the rights of the workers. Workers in general but specifically healthcare workers. As the society confronts COVID 19, measures must include attending to the rights of healthcare workers. These include the right to a safe working environment which is not of the usual standard as fighting usual diseases. This must be elevated to the level of the danger that COVID 19 creates. With the global shutdown, we are also faced with the threat to livelihoods of many workers who now have ‘to work from home’. The right to labour is now under threat as businesses may have to retrench. Our humanity appeals to business to consider saving the jobs first and investing in innovations that preserve the livelihoods of millions.

And finally in this reflection, is the issue that the fight against COVID 19 is a fight for the future. This is lost if we do not deal with the issue of dismantling the infrastructure of violence that has led the world to this mess. This ignites the old debate on the need for governments to invest more in health. In April 2001, the African Union countries met in Abuja and pledged to set a target of allocating at least 15% of their annual budget to improve the health sector. Today, 20 years later, Africa and the world have defied this pledge choosing to invest in the military. COVID 19 finds our healthcare systems unable to deal with this threat.

Going forward, we need to correct this. In Zimbabwe, healthcare practitioners have been on an industrial action for as long as we remember with government showing absolute indifference to the state of health care. Our systems must major in majors. Invest in systems that advance human security as opposed to prioritising systems of repression. The same is true for global leadership. In an era where our economies are interlocked, pursuit of militarism instead of conflict transformation makes no sense. According to the Global Peace Index, the economic impact of violence on the global economy in 2018 was $14.1 trillion in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. This is an economy of violence that we are happy to sustain at the expense of life sustaining systems like health care.

The fight against COVID 19 is a fight for life. There is no doubt that this is a fight that humanity must win. And we will win it. But we must win it with great compassion, having left no one behind, and provided protection for the vulnerable. The question we have to battle with is whether by the time we finish the battle, there will still be any humanity left in each one of us. This is why human rights are not an attachment in this fight. They are the core of the fight and we all have a role to play.

Dzikamai Bere is the National Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights). ZimRights is Zimbabwe’s oldest indigenous grassroots movement of ordinary people for human rights. Formed in 1992, ZimRights main focus of work is empowering ordinary people and communities with knowledge and tools for effective participation in the protection and promotion of human rights as well as the search for effective remedies to past and ongoing violations. As part of its response to COVID 19, ZimRights is pushing for inclusion of communities affected by COVID 19 in designing interventions as well as social protection for the most vulnerable small businesses and families. The latest report on Community Responses to COVID-19 is accessible here. This article was first presented on 6 April 2020 to the National Movement of Catholic Students via Facebook Live To comment on this article, email

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