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Advancing Human Rights while Fighting COVID-19

Updated: May 5, 2020

by Dr. Ai Kihara-Hunt, Associate Professor, the University of Tokyo

Edited by Paul Namkoong and Amishi Agrawal

Today, a seemingly globalized, fast-moving, and eccentric world has been brought to a standstill. Of course, as COVID-19 spreads across the world a number of special measures have been put in place by different countries. A part of me responds to this onset of attention and coverage with some emotional distance; this situation has begrudgingly become a global matter only because it seeped into the politically influential part of the world, warranting parallels with the refugee crisis. Nonetheless, another part of me finds reasonable space for enthusiasm; this is also an opportunity for all new and existing measures to be led by human rights as their guiding value, thus requiring all actors to pay special attention to vulnerable people.

International news outlets, like The New York Times, face a deluge of coronavirus stories.

What does “special attention” exactly entail? First, in relation to the effects of COVID-19, special measures of protection need to be taken to save particularly vulnerable lives, including the aged population, people with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women.

There are also countless others; those who face more risks of getting infected, and of not getting timely and sufficient health care, include persons who are fleeing from armed conflict or general violence, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons, homeless people, foreign workers and trainees, and people living in poverty.[1] Moreover, because of the way the virus spreads, people who are in overcrowded places also need specific attention. This means internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, detainees (including, in some cases, immigration facilities), workers in poor working conditions, hospitals, and institutions for elderly and mentally impaired people. The appeal by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for all governments to take urgent action to prevent the spread of the virus in detention facilities is in line with this sentiment.[2]

On the other hand, special care is also critical for health workers and their families, as they are the ones on the frontline. Measures cannot be limited to just providing protective gear or enabling childcare for health workers with children, and should ensure that they can get necessary food and supplies. For instance, the specific allocation of grocery store hours for elderly people is a good policy that can also be extended to medical staff and other vulnerable groups. This particular support, in terms of grocery shopping, medicine, and food delivery services, would be especially helpful in Japan; the government’s only approach so far has been to coax people to avoid clusters.

While human rights, at first glance, emphasize the vulnerability of and responsibility to protect specific groups of people, this is not the end of their ambit. Through their lens, valuable insight can also be gained on how society as a whole can tackle this pandemic.

One can point to how, in situations of emergency, existing inequality and discrimination often reveal themselves. It is already reported in many countries that people of East Asian nationality and descent are becoming victims of verbal and even physical abuse. Such discrimination does not appear overnight with the pandemic; in many cases, it is an underlying, unaddressed issue. It simply becomes visible through the specific policies of authorities. For example, it can be seen in the way that the Saitama local government disseminated masks to all schools except for those with children of Korean origin, or in the way that disproportionally-low COVID-19 tests were conducted for Palestinians.

Challenges to freedom of opinion and expression are also scarily evident. Restrictions on reporting COVID-19 related news in Wuhan [3] spring as an example, but one must also note self-imposed censorship – the act of refraining from reporting due to social or peer pressure. Japan needs to be especially mindful of this, as the right to information, namely media independence, became one of the most glaring issues in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster [4].

Other hidden, yet endemic issues need attention too. Among these, the impact of social distancing, remote working, school closures, and city lockdowns on existing and potential victims of domestic violence and child abuse should come to light. Families and residents may be required to spend a lot more time together, with limited access to leisure activities and even less to friends, families, and communities. In that circumstance, what happens behind doors becomes all the more invisible. Even if a victim wishes to report the case, he or she may not have access to a medical facility, counsellor, or support institution due to overloaded hospitals and medical facilities, as well as government restrictions on movement.

Indiscriminate and need-based access to testing, principles integral to human rights, should be the norm for coronavirus responses.

One more pertinent issue I would like to raise, as an academic at the University of Tokyo, is the confluence of the right to education with changes in classes due to COVID-19. The closing of schools and educational institutions, along with the switch to online classes, is necessary for public health and is legitimate under Human Rights Law (HRL), as certain rights can be suspended temporarily. HRL stipulates that special measures should remain proportionate to the aim sought, in addition to keeping in mind that the effect of a single measure is invariably experienced differently among various groups.

And while questions of economic status, computer availability, and internet access at home have been repeatedly discussed, there are many other questions worth asking: do students have family obligations at home? Are they allowed to study at home, and is there an enabling environment? Are there issues that they cannot discuss openly at home? Are there time periods when certain groups cannot study?

Moreover, the viability of new forms of learning must be examined. Can students learn as effectively through online or other means? Were they given sufficient instruction and time to get accustomed? Can we expect the same type and level of computer literacy for students? How is the strength of interactive classes and seminars substituted? Are students given sufficient opportunity to learn from their peers while they are off campus?

Again, institutions must account for their policies’ lopsided effects on certain groups. Do different genders or age groups have different difficulties? Do foreign students have access to sufficient and accurate information in the language they understand? Can hearing or visually impaired students make the most of what is provided? Is the institution making sufficient considerations for infected students? What about those who are subject to travel restrictions or in different time zones?

It is definitely not easy to cater to all needs, but that is not a valid reason to hastily brush these questions under the carpet. The key to effective policy involves flexibility – adjustments in consultation and discussion with students need to be on the table.

In fact, consultation with all vulnerable groups is the key for any new and temporary measures. It does not help to exclusively have rich men in power discuss and make decisions that affect everyone. Of course, some measures must be introduced quickly in order to prevent the spread of the pandemic. However, there also needs to be a transparent process of decision-making and modification as soon as it is materially possible to do so.

Rather than see these issues as difficulties, all of the aforementioned could be viewed as unprecedented opportunities to tackle existing and overlooked issues. For example, it is an opportunity for the authorities to reinforce that hate speech is not tolerated, and that individual accountability criminalizes these acts. It could also be a good time for all institutions to reconsider the need for having face-to-face meetings as the default option, especially in the evenings, as it is disadvantageous to working parents. In addition, now could also be time to reassess the structural biases of the society and existing institutions. This is an opportunity to comprehensively and thoroughly review practices and routines of educational and training programmes.

This opportunity, however, will not last forever – urgent action is necessary. At the end of the fight against COVID-19, we should all be able to reflect on it positively, not only through how authorities responded to this pandemic, but also through how the society worked together to support and assist all groups of people.

- - - - - [1] Many of these vulnerable people are identified in the UN High Commissioner’s press release on 5 March 2020. UN OHCHR, ‘Coronavirus: Human rights need to be front and center in response, says Bachelet’, accessible at, 6 March 2020, last accessed 27 March 2020. [2] UN OHCHR, ‘Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19 “rampaging through places of detention” – Bachelet’ , 25 March 2020, accessible at [3] Human Rights Watch, ‘Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response’, 19 March 2020, accessible at, last accessed 27 March 2020. [4] UN OHCHR, ‘Preliminary observations by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye at the end of his visit to Japan (12-19 April 2016)’, 19 April 2016, accessible at, last accessed 27 March 2020.

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