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Stranded Bolivians stay in a makeshift camp near Huara, Chile, after borders were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.IGNACIO MUNOZ/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch. Isabelle Langlois is the director of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone branch.

The daily COVID-19 information flow is relentless, necessarily so. Statistics and predictions of infection and death rates, unemployment and economic impact are being updated daily. Concerns mount about the safety of health care workers facing shortages of protective equipment. Physical-distancing guidance gets stricter and stricter. Governments lay out their financial-relief measures, including programs to alleviate massive job losses, help small businesses and address heightened risks for Indigenous communities, women and children at increased risk of violence in the home and other marginalized groups.

Amid all of this, though, we’re not hearing much about human rights.

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Human-rights commissioners have not been included in government briefings, and in countries around the world, human-rights analysis and statistics are not being shared.

But this pandemic is all about human rights. The virus attacks the rights to health and to life. The economic crisis imperils rights to livelihood, housing and food. The shutdowns undermine rights to education, employment and freedom of movement. Crucially, the disproportionate impact on communities that face entrenched marginalization goes to the core of essential human-rights obligations of gender equality and non-discrimination.

Many government measures do address some such concerns, even if not through clear human-rights frameworks. Some may ask, therefore, why does this matter? Shouldn’t governments simply be trusted to act quickly, without constraints, to address a crisis unlike any in generations?

There are many reasons why human-rights oversight must explicitly be at the heart of COVID-19 responses.

First, human rights can provide an overarching framework for COVID-19 responses, addressing what should and should not be done to ensure no one will be left behind, all in one package.

Human-rights principles inherently recognize that health is dependent on a range of social determinants and is of heightened concern for groups already facing discrimination, including sexism, ableism and racism. The protection of the right to health is inextricably linked to respect for all other rights.

Second, times of crisis are notorious for selling human rights short. Not only does that often lead to injustice, it often makes the crisis itself disproportionately worse for some. Too often, society picks up the pieces after a crisis, rather than taking rights on board throughout.

Third, oversight is not just about castigating wrongdoing. It helps anticipate what measures are needed to uphold human rights before harms deepen.

And fourth, given the unprecedented nature of this crisis, many of the institutions we count on to play a human-rights oversight role are suspended or scaled back, including courts, tribunals and commissions, as well as Parliament, legislative assemblies and municipal councils.

There is a vital global dimension to this. Around the world, we have already seen autocratic leaders use COVID-19 as a pretext for repression. Canada has, importantly, called on governments everywhere to recognize that “protecting public health and respecting human rights are not mutually exclusive.” Committing to human-rights oversight of our own COVID-19 response is a powerful way to put that into practice.

And instituting such oversight now readies us for the long-term work to come. This crisis has exposed long-standing political, social and economic frailties and inequities that are unsustainable. Even in crisis, we need to mobilize for transformative change.

Obviously, this is not a time for profound law reform or the creation of new institutions, none of which is possible in current circumstances and would not be done rapidly enough even if it was. But two immediate steps forward have been proposed today by a group of 301 organizations and experts.

First, ensure Indigenous knowledge-keepers and existing human-rights commissions play a visible advisory role to the COVID-19 crisis committees that governments have established.

Second, quickly set up independent human-rights oversight committees, drawn broadly from affected communities and relevant experts, with a mandate to monitor, analyze and make recommendations regarding the human-rights impact of this crisis.

There is so much at stake and so much in play, evolving hourly. Keeping a careful eye on the human-rights dimensions of COVID-19 through strengthened oversight is essential to finding our way forward.

The head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that he regretted President Donald Trump's decision to pull funding for the organization, but called on world unity to fight the new coronavirus pandemic.


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