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Human rights and COVID-19
Discussion at the Finnish Foreign Ministry Advisory Board for Human Rights

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

12 May 2020

Thank you for inviting me to this discussion. Finland has been one of many voices contributing to global policies to combat the coronavirus around the world. As Minister Pekka Haavisto was quick to recognise, COVID-19 is creating massive and growing threats to human rights.

The toll of death from the disease, and the suffering generated by restrictive measures required to control it, have been huge. The pandemic has also exposed weakness in every country's political, economic and social systems. Communities and individuals have been made more vulnerable by failure to ensure their access to healthcare and vital social protections.

In particular, poorer people who live in overcrowded and unsanitary circumstances are at a vastly heightened risk of contagion and death. In many societies this is particularly true for members of racial and ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples, exposed to systematic discrimination.


We also know now that many institutional environments – including care homes for older people and people with disabilities, as well as prisons and places of detention – have not ensured sufficiently attentive follow-up to people's right to health.

The additional burdens of care shouldered by many women, and their exposure to domestic violence, are also starkly evident today, as well as sometimes severe impact on their access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

And the value of the work done by healthcare personnel, and other workers now deemed to be "essential", has clearly not been sufficiently valued by societies which have largely neglected to prioritize the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

Like a tsunami set off by an earthquake, the pandemic is now being accompanied by a planet-wide economic recession. The UN Secretary-General has warned that 500 million people could be pushed into poverty by the end of the year – wiping out progress achieved over three decades. That is one in every 12 people alive today. The International Labour Organization reports that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy – nearly half the world’s total workforce of 3.3 billion – “stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed”. The World Food Programme has warned of famines "of biblical proportions".

In 1963, in his letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King wrote that all of us “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all." This lesson has been brought home to us by COVID-19. To effectively protect us from crises, all of us need not only national, but also global policies that prioritise civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

So my first strong recommendation today must be for a renewed, and powerful effort by Finland and all States, to ensure a multilateral effort of global solidarity in this crisis.

We need to see a concerted and comprehensive multilateral effort to help national health-care systems manage the current crisis and get back on their feet in a stronger and more resilient position. We need to see rapid progress on social protection, so that people can recover with the least possible suffering. States will need to increase spending on income support and food security, and work to combat inequalities and discrimination in the economy. Debt relief measures will also be essential.

We should be building a new economic paradigm that supports sustainable, inclusive and climate-sensitive growth – and which helps people become more resilient to crises by reducing inequalities and promoting human dignity. It should be clear to all of us that a greater effort by everyone to fulfill the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would have mitigated a great deal of the suffering we see today – and we need to strongly advance on that agenda in the coming decade.

The UN Policy Brief on Human Rights and COVID-19 places human rights at the heart of this global effort – not only because these are universal principles of justice and human dignity, but also because policies that are grounded in human rights are more effective at addressing crisis and building greater resilience for the future.

At the core of all such efforts, we need to see much more attentive scrutiny of the differential impact of COVID-19 on numerous groups – many of them among the least visible and influential communities in every society. They include older people,

people with disabilities, women, migrants, members of national, ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities, and indigenous peoples. It is vital to ensure that accurate and disaggregated data is swiftly collected and analysed, and my Office has developed a framework of human rights indicators to assist global and national policymakers to make the most effective decisions that leave no-one behind.

For example, a range of factors mean that indigenous peoples are often particularly vulnerable to pandemics. Here in Finland, many Sámi live far from major health care centres. Information about prevention and care should be made available and regularly updated in Sámi language, with efforts to ensure constant coordination with Sámi institutions to minimize the impact of COVID-19.

Other communities, such as the Roma, have struggled for decades with high unemployment and social challenges, and they are likely to face even tougher challenges as a consequence of the pandemic. I encourage the Finnish Government to coordinate with civil society and other stakeholders to ensure that additional socio-economic measures address these specific impacts on disadvantaged and marginalized minorities, including consideration of emergency financial aid to people who may have been working in the informal economy. Relevant and updated information should also be made available in minority languages such as Swedish and Romani.

For many years, Finland has made generous efforts in receiving migrants, and it is important that issues regarding health insurance, identification papers or social security not be allowed to block their equal access to medical care and information. Strong measures to uphold the universal right to health are a powerful way to push back against stigma and racist or xenophobic attacks.

This is also true for the LGBTI community. No community should experience any neglect or lack of health care; the authorities should fully ensure the right to health.

In this context, I commend the Government’s special online briefing last month for children, which took place in Finnish, Swedish and Finnish sign language. I also want to highlight the role that Finland's Human Rights Centre and Ombudsman can play in building greater understanding of the disproportionate challenges being experienced by women and various communities and helping to shape effective responses. Their guidance concerning protective measures in specific workplace conditions; the best way to combat discrimination and racism; and the legal framework for adopting –and releasing – limitations on freedom of movement will be invaluable.

Today, as in several other countries, lockdown measures and other restrictions on freedom of movement have spared Finland's healthcare systems from collapse, and driven the infection rate down to the point where those restrictions can be progressively released. But until a vaccine can be engineered and distributed, people will have to live with COVID-19 as a constant potential threat. As economies and societies transition towards more normal functioning, we must recognise that every measure to revive workplaces, education, mobility and social lives carries the risk of sparking a surge of new cases. The first medical indicator for such a surge may have a lag of two weeks - when severe cases will begin to arrive in hospitals.

These decisions regarding the release of lockdowns require cautious and very attentive policymaking. There is a real risk that they could be politicized, or based on the interests of a small group – generating disproportionate and lethal threats to other communities. Lifting restrictions could also lead to unforeseen difficulties for many people – such as heavy burdens on parents required to work when schools may not be open; difficulties getting to and from work; and safety issues for those in frontline jobs. Again, use of accurate and human rights-based indicators, alongside specific health data, can ensure that the risks and needs of different groups are given appropriate weight.


Flexibility and responsiveness will also be crucial, with the ability to adapt policies quickly in response to local surges in contagion or other adverse consequences.

All those who are working away from home need access to adequate protective equipment, such as face masks and shielding material, and they need to be able to travel as safely as possible to and from work.

In all high risk places, including care institutions and places of detention, as well as migrant camps, and poor and overcrowded urban zones, every effort must be made to ensure the availability of testing, including through mobile facilities; increased monitoring of health data; adequate facilities for isolation of people who have been exposed to COVID-19; the provision of water, toilet facilities and soap free of cost; and timely access to medical care.

People have a right to full and accurate information about the pandemic and our response to it. They also have a right to be consulted and involved in the decisions that affect their lives, notably these consequential choices about how to lift emergency measures. Women, older persons, people with disabilities and representatives of all communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic should be informed, consulted and engaged in shaping these policies. Participation builds greater trust in the authorities and better compliance with measures to restrict contagion, and I want to emphasise this point: freedom of expression, like other human rights, is an essential component of public health.

To help States and multilateral actors devise and implement effective and rights-based responses to COVID-19, my Office is continuing to develop guidance on specific thematic issues - such as the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of older people; women; people in detention: migrants; people with disabilities; and LGBTI people.

We have also issued policy guidance regarding the use of emergency measures in this context. As noted by Finland and other European States last month, we have seen threats to the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of emergency measures in a number of countries. They include the misuse of these powers to suppress information and legitimate criticism of the authorities and the disproportionate use of force in enforcement of lockdowns.

I am also concerned that new measures for surveillance and data collection to assist contact tracing could create lasting damage to the right to privacy and other fundamental rights. Any form of surveillance should be time-bound, framed by precise and publicly accessible laws, and should be proportionate to achieving the specific goal of combatting COVID-19. There must also be strong safeguards and transparency about the use and storage of data.

On all these issues, we are working closely with national actors – including governments, national human rights institutions, businesses and civil society – as well as with our UN sister organisations, to place human rights at the core of all responses to COVID-19. In particular, I want to highlight the strong effort to ensure that the work of Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams is centred on human rights priorities, including the principles of non-discrimination, participation and accountability.

All of us are navigating new challenges, in unmapped territory. And it is precisely in such times of crisis that we need sound principles to guide our path. Just as individuals are made more vulnerable to COVID-19 by comorbidities, many underlying human rights gaps and failings generate greater vulnerabilities for entire societies and regions. Inequalities, discrimination and other critical issues such as climate change have weakened our resistance to shocks, and my Office is drawing up a range of funding proposals on specific projects to support effective responses to COVID-19. I am convinced that with the help of Finland and other vital stakeholders, we can build systems that do a more effective job of protecting the rights of all humanity.

Thank you