The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting 204 countries around the world. By the time this article was written there are 1,033,478 cases including 54,369 deaths and 218,864 recovered across the globe. Rwanda had reported 84 cases.

While countries are trying a number of responses against the COVID 19 outbreak, they must have the respect of international human rights law and standards at the centre of their interventions in order to protect those who are most at risk.

This article discusses the human rights concerns and challenges/Implications to state responses to the novel COVID-19 across different phases of their response, and addresses the human rights concerns at stake when states impose preventive measures to protect public health, such as quarantines and travel bans; guarantee social security and workers’ rights.

It further discusses international cooperation and assistance as a state obligation to reach full recovery of this pandemic.

The Right to Health

Right to health doesn’t mean the right to be “healthy”; what states are required is to put in place facilities, systems and policies to help their citizens achieve the highest standards of physical and mental health.

While the realisation of this right is said to be progressive in nature meaning that it is subject to the technical and economic capabilities of each state, this is not an excuse for non-compliance.

States are required to take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards the full realisation of the right to health.

COVID-19 is also testing our systems including healthcare systems across the world where this pandemic has already reached, it has reminded us that at the end of the day we need to be prepared as we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us.

Locally Rwanda has managed to put in place health facilities not for the purpose of this pandemic but the country has also managed to spare a safe facility for the purpose of this pandemic (The Kanyinya Health Centre) and lucky enough we haven’t had so many cases and as of now the country is accommodating all 84 patients in good conditions.

Freedom of Movement and Assembly

Quarantine and Travel bans are part of the measures that many jurisdictions have put in place to limit movements, travels, and assembly whether in churches, at work, schools etc in order to mitigate the possible spread of this pandemic.

Is it legitimate for states to introduce both isolation and quarantine to their citizens? The answer is yes and this is stipulated in many countries' laws and we should also remind ourselves that freedom of movement and assembly are limited rights that states can limit for legitimate reasons including in situations of epidemics; nonetheless States should remain conscious of not using this excuse to interfere with other rights associated to these freedoms.

In Rwanda particularly these measures have been in place for almost 2 weeks now and there are no complaints from citizens due to cooperation between citizens and security organs in enforcing these measures and by allowing some exceptions where necessary.

Worker’s Rights

Measures put in place can adversely impact people’s rights to and at work, with those in insecure forms of labour being disproportionately affected.

Migrant workers, people on lower income, people working in the informal sector do not get adequate or any sort of social security, due to this pandemic they may even face additional challenges when they are not able to work.

We have heard cases of domestic workers who were already fired by their employers on the basis of quarantine.

We can expect more causalities depending on the types of contracts especially that most employers do mention in employment contracts that contracts may be suspended or cancelled due to “force majeure” this term may be interpreted differently while some other contracts do mention epidemics to be valid reasons that may lead to suspension or even dissolution.

States are reminded to intervene in this situation and make sure that enough and enforceable measures put in place to protect these folks.

International Cooperation to fight the COVID 19 as an Obligation.

According to the CESCR, States have an obligation to control diseases, both individually and through international cooperation, by acting in order to, among other things, ‘make available relevant technologies, using and improving epidemiological surveillance and data collection on a disaggregated basis, the implementation or enhancement of immunization programmes and other strategies of infectious disease control.

COVID-19 warranted compliance with such obligations from its very early stages, and States which do not promptly share relevant information and technology may be in breach of their international obligations in the same way as those that do not expeditiously adopt policies aimed at slowing down the outbreak.

The pandemic has  reached countries with fragile health systems and weak institutions, with the potential of creating huge numbers of deaths, and this calls for developed countries to look back at their international obligations  to urgently provide the necessary resources to reduce the losses in human life and back up those most vulnerable.

History will judge us harshly if we do not get this right.

Many thanks to those who are getting this right and have started acting including WHO as an international actor, Jack Ma and his foundation who donated essential medical supplies to help developing countries.

The COVID-19 is reminding us all that we don’t have the responsibility to protect ourselves but also a moral responsibility to protect others.  

By Jean Damascene N. Kalinda 

Published : March 31, 2020 | Updated : April 3, 2020