COVID-19: Human Rights and Duties to the Community
On March 5, when the world was different, I visited Europe for work.
I cut short my visit, flew home, strictly self-isolated, developed coronavirus symptoms, and my doctor advised the swab test. The test was self-administered in my car, parked in a quiet alley, under the direction of two medics wearing safety apparel.
Earlier they sent me a video of how to do the test and they provided additional instructions through the car window. The medics were supremely sympathetic and professional.
The result of the test showed that I have Covid-19. I report on my health status because there is nothing to hide. There is no stigma. I am working from home, take solitary walks and have a sense of solidarity with past, present and future patients.
Duties to the community
There is a little-known, but crucial, provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of their personality is possible.”
In other words, human rights are not just about ‘I’ and ‘me’, they are also about ‘we’ and ‘us’.
Experiencing coronavirus symptoms, I enjoyed the human right to medical care, but I also had a duty to the community to self-isolate, take the swab test and now studiously follow the advice of health professionals.
Others have a similar duty. Journalists have a duty to the community to do all they can to get their facts right. We all have a responsibility to challenge racism and ‘othering’ in all its forms. We have a duty to the community, and succeeding generations, not to mess up the environment.
In certain circumstances, it may be legitimate to lockdown, place someone in quarantine, and deport. Because these and similar measures can be abused, they are subject to safeguards, for example, the measures must be proportionate and subject to independent review.
In contemporary Aotearoa, especially in the era of Covid-19, it is time to discuss our human rights duties to the community. These duties chime with Te Tiriti and the Māori world view, such as Kaitiakitanga. The discussion is long overdue.
The constructive roles of human rights
Last week, I wrote to the Prime Minister congratulating her on the government’s initial response to the extraordinary challenges posed by Covid-19.
These are extremely dangerous times especially for the most vulnerable members of our communities, such as older people, disabled people, those with underlying health problems, and those living in poverty.
History demonstrates the severe and unequal impact of introduced disease on Tangata whenua.
After the Government’s initial positive response comes the need to ensure fair, equitable, effective, sustained, practical implementation over the long haul.
During the last year, the Human Rights Commission has demonstrated the constructive roles that human rights and Te Tiriti o Waitangi can play across a range of policy-settings.
Today, the Commission is ready to help the Government ensure its response to Covid-19 is fair and benefits from the insights provided by the country’s national and international human rights commitments.
Such collaboration has already begun, for example Commissioner Paula Tesoriero has joined the Disability Sector Leadership Group which was recently established in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Holding to account
On behalf of all individuals and communities, the Commission will ensure that new powers, and the exercise of existing powers, are subject to proper safeguards and review. Our job is to check that quarantine, deportations and similar measures are fair, just and proportionate.
This is the classic role of a civil liberties organisation. But the Commission is not the Civil Liberties Commission, it is the Human Rights Commission.
So, we will hold government accountable across the whole spectrum of human rights, including the right to effective healthcare and protection, and the right to a dignified life.
We will review whether Minister Robertson’s suitably ambitious budgetary measures deliver for all.
Engaging with communities
The Commission will also keep as close as possible to all our communities, especially the most disadvantaged. We will do everything we can to ensure they are heard.
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