Measures are being taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus. These measures have human rights implications — but at the same time, they are needed. How can we strike a balance?

Just over a month ago, I was returning to the Netherlands from a two-week-long holiday in India. The coronavirus outbreak in China was discussed in the news, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. “It won’t affect me,” I thought.

Two weeks later, my parents rang me up from our home in Poland as I was on my way out, heading over to see some friends. “Come home,” they ordered. “I’m fine,” I responded. “It isn’t that bad in the Netherlands.”

That day, I unknowingly went to work at the DutchReview office for the last time. When we released our coronavirus video, we had no idea how much things would change here in the Netherlands.

At the time, my friends (who are still at university) were taking their mid-term exams. All of the sudden university classes in the Netherlands were suspended, exams were postponed and students at the university were told that if they wanted to go home for the remaining half of the semester, they could. The university campus, once busy and bustling with energy and life is now empty.

Suddenly, life in the Netherlands had changed.

The descent to dystopia

In the span of four weeks, coronavirus measures went from advice and recommendations by the government to businesses closing, educational institutions closing, birthdays, dinners, parties, and all social events being cancelled or postponed.

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Just last week a new rule was announced where people in groups larger than three could not have gatherings. New measures, in a pre-coronavirus world thought to be unthinkable, are being brought into place day-by-day.

Public and private life has been put on halt as a result of the novel coronavirus, and elsewhere, borders have been shut. The last time these ‘big-brother’ style measures were imposed in the Netherlands was during WWII, according to the NRC. We still haven’t reached a total lockdown — but it could be on the horizon.

The situation is even worse in other countries: The Chinese government imposed a draconian-style lockdown. In India, imprisonment is possible for those that violate social distancing measures.

Restrictions and Rights

The outbreak has caused several fundamental human rights to be suspended. Fundamental rights are those that are enshrined by documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are bestowed upon all human beings regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Included in the scope of fundamental rights are civil and political rights. These are mostly negative obligations on part of the government, meaning that the government must, for example, refrain from torture, or refrain from interfering in elections.

Social and economic rights are also included. These are positive obligations, meaning that the government must, for example, guarantee adequate welfare to the unemployed, or provide education and healthcare.

How have rights in the Netherlands been affected?

In the Netherlands, a western, democratic country that has ratified various human rights instruments, rights violations are pretty uncommon. In fact, it has a pretty high ranking  on the Freedom barometer (as well as various other indices).

But coronavirus measures have resulted in the suspension of several rights, including the right to private and public life (like banning gatherings that exceed more than three people at a time indoors), the right to liberty (via quarantine and isolation), freedom to conduct business (many have been shut), the right to education (schools and universities have either closed or switched to online classes) — this is key for students that do not have access to online education platforms.

But other countries have it far worse

These rights violations become even more problematic in poverty-stricken countries where social welfare is inadequate, and fundamental rights guarantees are already at the bare minimum. Not being able to work in these instances translates to no food on the table.

Other rights violations include freedom of movement and even the right to adequate healthcare in countries that are inundated with COVID-19 patients such as Italy. These countries need to make choices on who can receive care in ICUs. So far the Netherlands has not had to deal with the latter but this might be something on the horizon if current measures fail.

There may also be implications on other groups, like refugees. Refugees are a vulnerable group in society — and the virus may spread more rapidly in refugee camps due to close living conditions.

Additionally, the government’s priorities have now shifted to tackling the global pandemic, which may put certain asylum proceedings on halt. Also at risk is the right to a fair trial, since many court trials have been put on halt to limit the spread of the virus.

State of Emergency

In terms of human rights, enshrined in the constitutions of many countries are certain rights that citizens and residents are entitled to. In law there are derogable rights, or rights that can be suspended temporarily, and non-derogable rights, which cannot be deviated from at all regardless of the circumstance. However, many of these rights are derogable when a country is in a state of national emergency. 

Essentially, this means that the government is allowed to impose certain measures or engage in certain actions that it would not usually be permitted in everyday life, only in exceptional circumstances.

For instance, Article 15(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states:

“In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under this Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.”

*note that although this is a Council of Europe instrument (and not created by the EU), all EU countries are party to it.

This means that in cases of public emergency, a state can take the necessary measures to alleviate the situation. UN Conventions have similar provisions listed.

So as a result, a lot of human rights have been limited, and these are justified limitations by provisions such as the latter. Are there consequences of limiting these rights? Yes, of course. But a more important priority is the right to life — and this is at risk.

The right to life is a jus cogens norm, meaning that in international law, it to be guaranteed at all times (as much as possible except perhaps in situations like war) — even in times of national emergency. And many are at risk for this one as a result of the impending virus.

To lock or to not (completely) lock?

So countries need to make a trade-off. They must balance extreme measures that are unwelcome in democratic societies, with guaranteeing public safety, and with securing the right to life. So far during the coronavirus pandemic, two methods have been used:

Complete lockdown

A complete lockdown is the most restrictive of all the measures that could be taken in terms of rights restrictions. This tactic is aimed to eradicate the virus. Since China’s lockdown, the country has seen a decline of its coronavirus cases (on Thursday, March 19, no new cases were reported). But for how long is this sustainable? And if a second wave follows (like experts predict), then how effective is a complete lockdown?

Partial lockdown

The second option, a partial lockdown (minimal restrictions), which allows the coronavirus curve to flatten slightly, spreading the virus out so that people can grow immune. But the cost of this is obviously that more people are infected and more lives are put at risk. And in the Netherlands, numbers are still growing — and fast.

Until a widely-accessible vaccine or effective treatment is developed, there appears to be no perfect solution, because each one has implications. So we can choose to adhere to democratic values, but at what cost? Or we can impose a hard lockdown, but at what cost?

For now, things are changing each day — this unprecedented phenomenon that is the coronavirus is something the world has never experienced, and governments around the world are navigating unchartered territory.

Do you support an increase in restrictive measures, or do you believe that these measures should be kept to an absolute minimum to protect fundamental rights? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Image: DutchReview/Canva

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