“COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.”
With this note, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine highlights key principles that need to be complied with in the design and implementation of measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any emergency responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.
General considerations and protection of vulnerable groups • Quarantines, which restrict the right to freedom of movement, may be justified in the current circumstances. Under international law, measures restricting freedom of movement and other rights should be strictly necessary, proportionate, time bound, undertaken for legitimate aims (e.g. to protect public health), and applied in a nondiscriminatory way.
• Quarantines must be imposed in a safe and respectful manner, and when possible, should be voluntary. The rights of those under quarantine must be respected and protected, such as the right to food, the right to be treated humanely, the right to health, the right to information, right to access potable water and freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression. In particular, people under quarantine should have access to information and communication with the outside world, as feasible; those suffering from underlying health conditions (HIV/AIDS, diabetes, mental illnesses, etc.) or having other specific needs, including opioid substitution therapy and harm reduction services clients, should continue to receive adequate treatment.
• Among the most vulnerable at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic are those on low incomes, isolated rural populations, people with underlying health conditions, persons with disabilities, the homeless, older persons living alone or in institutions, vulnerable migrants with limited access to healthcare, asylum seekers, children, people using drugs, and others.1 Women and girls may also be disproportionally affected by the disease and/or by State responses to it. This means that additional efforts shall be undertaken to protect the health, well-being and human rights of members of these groups.
• Staying off work in order to “self-isolate” may result in lost pay or a lost job, with farranging consequences for people’s livelihoods and live. One should keep in mind and be ready to respond to any unintended consequences of actions put in place to reduce the spread of the infection. Businesses will also need to play a role, including responding with flexibility to the adverse impact of the epidemic on their employees.2 Women and men may be affected differently by the economic and social consequences of quarantines and “social distancing” measures. While designing response measures, one needs to analyze and address the differential impact of these measures on women and men. Particular attention must be paid to women and others who may victims of or at risk of domestic violence, as quarantines and similar measures can increase their vulnerability.
• Health needs of homeless persons shall be addressed, taking into account that it may be impossible for them to isolate themselves. Any measures to address their needs should not be punitive in nature and should be guided by the principle of protection of their right to health.
• Specific attention should be paid to the needs of older persons, especially those living alone, or in poor health, such as cognitive decline/dementia or other mental health illnesses. Older persons should be provided with accurate and accessible information about the COVID-19 outbreak3 and, as needed, be instructed on how to use protective devices (masks, sanitizers), how to order food on-line, etc.
• Harm reduction services should continue to make sure clients receive critical services.
Despite border closures and similar restrictions, adequate supply of opioid substitutes (eg methadone) should be ensured.
• In relation to children, the availability of substitute caregivers where a parent or other primary caregiver is hospitalised should be ensured, as well as the availability of comprehensive psycho-social support for hospitalised children to counter any negative psychological effects experienced; the development of contingency plans for children who face prolonged periods without formal education; and, where appropriate, on the basis of age and availability of technology, the continuation of lessons remotely using IT solutions should be ensured, so that children can continue to learn and benefit from education.