In the face of the pandemic, human rights are a necessity — not a luxury

COMMENT

The Covid-19 pandemic that is spreading across the world is, of course, a public health emergency. But it is also, at its core, a human and peoples’ rights issue. 

As we at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Union’s human rights body, pointed out in a February 28 statement, both the grave threat Covid-19 poses to the health and life of people and the nature of the response of AU member states to this pandemic are at the very core of what human and peoples’ rights are all about.

Given the well-established principle of human rights law that the state bears primary responsibility for protecting its people from threats to their rights to health and life, the first point of the African Commission is that a state is to be held accountable where its failure or delay to initiate appropriate measures or to implement such measures leads to the spread of Covid-19, resulting in people falling seriously ill and losing their lives.

Equally important is the second point in the commission’s statement that the obligation to respond to the threat through the measures recommended by public health experts for containing the spread of Covid-19 does not give them the license to impose a wholesale limitation of other human rights. Such would be a true case of making the cure worse than the disease itself.

But both the adequacy of the response to contain the scourge of Covid-19 and the consistency of the response with the requirements of human and peoples’ rights are the function of how African states are led and how their governance system is organised to cater for the interests of the public.

From the response so far while several countries including South Africa and Rwanda mobilised responses that are in par with global recommended practices, in other cases responses have not only been slow but also lacking in clarity, decisiveness, and coherence. In Ethiopia, for example, after the announcement by government of the measures for prevention and containment of Covid-19 (by closing schools, limiting public gatherings, calling for hand washing and social distancing), the newly minted ruling Prosperity Party has been convening large political meetings in various parts of the country — not only contradicting its own measures, but also signalling to the public not to take them seriously.

In other cases, while schools have been closed, religious gatherings were allowed to continue. They also lacked a coherent communication strategy, opening avenues to the spread of all kinds of damaging misinformation. Also missing in some of the countries is clarity on the legal basis on which new restrictions of fundamental rights are founded.

Reflecting existing leadership and major governance gaps, in a number of AU member states the responses adopted tend to disproportionately affect the socio-economic wellbeing of the most vulnerable. The responses have also created conditions for the perpetration of violence including killings and inhuman treatment by security forces as well as acts of bigotry and attacks against foreign nationals by members of society.  

Covid-19 is throwing into sharp relief the policy choices made, the quality of leadership and governance system of states when it comes to their healthcare systems. There is no doubt that the cost of Covid-19 will be particularly heavy in states with weak healthcare systems, poor socio-economic conditions and fragile governance.

On the African continent, this is a risk for too many countries. This is thanks in part to historical factors — such as colonialism, the International Monetary Fund’s infamous structural adjustment programmes, and apartheid in South Africa — but is also a result of a failure of leadership and governance manifesting prolonged negligent treatment accorded to health care and lack of investment in related services including water, sanitation and education.  

While it took Covid-19 pandemic for Africa (and indeed much of the developed world) to recognise the right to access to health care for all as a policy issue of the highest order, this recognition has come too late. The world, and particularly countries in Africa with poor health systems and provisions of related services, will tragically pay the price of this failure in both the lives lost to the virus and in its dire socioeconomic consequences.

The end result is that many Africans who will be exposed to Covid-19 and fall seriously ill will have little prospect of receiving adequate treatment. In countries where preventive measures have not been taken or are introduced too late or poorly executed or tailored to specific needs of various communities, lack of access to water, sanitation and information is sure to leave many at the mercy their fate and ingenuity.

Those who pay first and most for this state of affairs in Africa’s health systems are of course the African people, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

But in this interconnected world, the consequences will be felt well beyond this continent’s borders. As Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a Financial Times op-ed:

If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa, it will return to haunt us all

The logic here is simple. As United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it: “We are only as strong as the weakest health system.” In the same way it spread from China to other parts of the world, there would be nothing that would stop the virus from spreading again from here.

If we learn one thing from this pandemic, it is that citizens of this continent — and indeed the world – require their states to be capable, responsive and respectful of human rights. Quality leadership and good governance is not a luxury, it is a human rights necessity. The health, safety and livelihoods of us all depend on it.

Solomon Ayele Dersso chairs the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He is also the founding director of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa-based continental policy research think tank.

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