Covid-19: What impact will it have on fundamental rights?

, by Melina Charalampous, translated by Tiffany Williams

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Covid-19: What impact will it have on fundamental rights?

Lockdown, school closures, border controls: these are just a few of the exceptional measures taken by the majority of countries around the world to halt the spread of coronavirus. The actions taken by authorities in the face of this public health emergency may go on to infringe the fundamental rights of millions of people.

In December 2019, the COVID-19 epidemic broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and over time the infection spread to thousands of people. Now it is Spring of 2020 and this epidemic has spread across the rest of the world. At the time of writing [27th March] the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that over 300,000 people had been infected, constituting an international public health emergency.

As the virus continues to spread across the world, European countries —and the EU itself— decided to act, taking drastic preventative measures to contain the pandemic.

These measures are challenging several fundamental human rights, such as the right to health, the right to free movement, and even freedom of religion. Nonetheless, they are not without legitimate grounds.

The right to health

Since this is a public health emergency, the first on the list of human rights being compromised is the right to health and access to healthcare. In line with Article 35 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, everyone has the right to access preventive health care and the right to benefit from medical treatment. During the COVID-19 crisis, however, the number of people affected by coronavirus has broken all records, and as a result, healthcare systems are overwhelmed. With no adequate capacity in the system to meet their needs, healthcare professionals are turning patients away, costing a number of people their chance to exercise their right to healthcare.

Freedom of movement

In Italy, as in France and Spain, authorities have imposed strict quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Following the closure of shops, sports and arts venues, lockdowns and travel authorisation documents have taken priority over freedom of movement, enshrined as it is in Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In this category we can also include the right not to be stopped arbitrarily by police for aggressive inspections. However, these restrictions are legitimate if there is a serious risk to public health; the only fault of these measures is the fact that they have been imposed for a indefinite length of time.

Ban on discrimination

This public health crisis has brought to light a crisis of human values, as Chinese and East Asian people have been denied entry to bars, museums, even whole countries, and have been discriminated against solely on the grounds that the outbreak of the virus began in China. These actions, of course, constitute discrimination on the basis of nationality and are prohibited (even in times of war) by both European and international law.

The right to access information

In this public health crisis, a lot of fake news is circulating with the aim of fuelling fear and panic among the public. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than the virus, and is just as dangerous,” Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, as well as condemning fake online cures for Covid-19.

Disinformation and propaganda provoke panic. They undermine the efforts of governments and health authorities, and they undermine our right to access official and accurate information.

Freedom of religion

Even freedom of religion has been impacted by measures to control the pandemic, as places of worship have now been closed to avoid overcrowding. Additionally, established religious traditions will not be taking place at Easter, depriving thousands of believers of their right to express their religion in community with others (Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union).

Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in this effort, not an afterthought

These rights (apart from the prohibition of discrimination) can be restricted when this is called for by critical public interest, such as serious risk to population health, but only if the restrictions adhere to the principles of necessity, proportionality and purpose.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked that the measures taken by countries against the spread of coronavirus uphold human rights.

Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in this effort, not an afterthought, [...] Lockdowns, quarantines and other such measures to contain and combat the spread of COVID-19 should always be carried out in strict accordance with human rights standards and in a way that is necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk” she said in her statement.

Therefore these measures can only be justified if they are strictly necessary, proportionate and fit for purpose, and if they are imposed without discrimination.

Solidarity and international cooperation are more necessary than ever

The WHO has emphasised that there is only one way for the world to fight this epidemic: solidarity and cooperation between countries. In the midst of a pandemic, safeguarding human rights is more important than ever, and responses to this crisis must be founded on their protection.

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom