September 28, 2021

Human Rights in COVID-19

Since the beginning of the year the world has been facing an unprecedented human and health crisis. A Pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to WHO Country Office in China on 31st Dec 2019. WHO is working round the clock to analyze the data, provide advice to authorities, coordinate with partners, help countries prepare, increase supplies and manage expert networks. The virus outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and on 11 February 2020, WHO announced a name for the new corona virus disease: COVID-19.[1]

In measure to safeguard people from this pandemic, governments are assorting to the resolve of quarantine and complete lockdown. The measures taken to contain the virus, has triggered a downturn of economy and basic rights of people, particularly in India.

What are human rights?

Human rights are universally inalienable, by birth rights that we owe to the world. These rights are apart from all the pre-existing rights given to a human being by art 19 or art 21 of Constitution of India – an extra judicial mechanism.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, was the first attempt to set out at a global level the fundamental rights and freedom shared by all human beings. The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees protection of the person, of procedural law (claim of effective legal remedy), classical freedom rights such as freedom of expression, as well as economical, social and cultural rights. These rights should apply to all people irrespectively of their race, gender and nationality, as all people are born free and equal.[2]

In India, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is a statutory body, responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights defined by the act.

The Crisis

In the current times India has over 1.3 billion people locked in their homes. The government is doing what it thinks is best for the country to overcome the crisis with minimum casualty. In a bid to flatten the curve, the Indian government seems to have disregarded the basic human rights of the people as an opportunity cost of saving the population from the widespread disease.

“The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights said. “It is nonetheless important to ensure that measures in response to the COVID-19 are neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.”[3]

Free movement

The “right to liberty of movement” within a state is protected under article 12.1 of the ICCPR. With India’s massive population the government of India has a much larger responsibility to look after everyone’s welfare. Large proportion of India’s population is covered by labour working people. The government has taken steps to provide for the population involved in the agricultural sector, but the main problem the government has to overcome is that of the migrant labourers. With the lockdown, the central government has shut down the industrial establishments and other work sites. The loss of jobs and salary is what most of these daily contracted labourers fear. Thousands of migrant labourers started flouting lockdown order to head to their homes, fearing starvation following the imposition of restrictions on their occupation and movement. The migrant workers particularly from the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chennai, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi have started moving on foot to reach their home states, majorly Bihar and Jharkhand.[4]

Since due to the lockdown, all non essential businesses and transport services has been closed down, these workers are walking hundreds of kilometers back to their home states. People are availing any means available in order to reach home. For them the need to survive the lockdown has long surpassed the need to survive the virus.

Privacy violation

Another concern that arose from the pandemic is the issue of the peoples’ privacy. The “right to privacy” is in the Article 17 of the ICCPR. It has also been recognized as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. A recent incident of leakage of a “confidential” list curated by the government, involving personal details of 722 passengers who travelled to New Delhi was circulated on Whatsapp and Facebook. This has caused direct interference from state as well as non-state actors with the passengers’ privacy, family and home – which is what Article 17 of ICCPR accords protection against.

As a measure, the central government introduced a smartphone app, Arogya Setu. This app works as a corona virus tracker letting the individual know if they have been in contact or near somebody who was infected. This app follows your movement and alerts you if there is someone with a chance of having the virus. Although it is claimed the data is encrypted and will not be shared with any third party, it has sufficiently managed to raise a few eyebrows regarding the threat of being under mass surveillance. Now with the transport facilities coming back in business, the app is now being used as an “e-pass” to travel across states.

Another issue of privacy came from the education sector. Since as a precautionary, measure all the educational institutions have been closed down, these institutions have assorted to the online method of teaching. The institutions are majorly using an American based Zoom video-conferencing app. The Ministry of Home Affairs have warned that the Zoom app users that the app is not safe for usage. A petition was also filed in the Supreme Court by Harsh Chugh seeking a ban on the app claiming lack of internet safety and not having end-to-end encryption and is violating the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. The CEO of Zoom Video Communication has also publically apologized and accepted for the app to be faulty in providing a secure environment.

Conclusion

In the current times of crisis it is important that the government and the public should have a transparent relation and have a better understanding. It is important for the government to establish a proper communication with its people and build a sense of trust. While the world is trying to come up with a vaccine for the virus, it is not in view that the crisis will be averted any sooner. The government while taking steps to overcome the threat, it is important that it also considers the basic rights of the people. It is the government’s responsibility to make sure its population can freely exercise their rights of being a simple human being. Human rights are not simply luxuries that are to be protected once the threat simmers down. In fact, upholding human rights can ensure better implementation and enforcement because when people trust the Government and feel safe, they are more likely to cooperate. Containing COVID-19 will not only require efforts from the government but also from the population at large. The OHCHR encourages the government to work shoulder-to-shoulder with civil society on the response.

“This is a time for domestic solidarity and unity. I encourage the Government to draw on India’s vibrant civil society to reach out to the most vulnerable sectors of society, to ensure no one is left behind in this time of crisis,” Bachelet said.


[1] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen

[2] https://www.humanrights.ch/en/standards/udhr/

[3] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25767&LangID=E

[4] https://www.indialegallive.com/special-story/status-of-human-rights-in-the-age-of-covid-19-98488

Author Details: Srijeeta (Lloyd Law College)

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