International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. The Siracusa Principles, adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, and UN Human Rights Committee general comments on states of emergency and freedom of movement provide authoritative guidance on government responses that restrict human rights for reasons of public health or national emergency. Any measures taken to protect the population that limit people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. States of emergency need to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups.
In Uganda, president Yoweri Museveni ordered restrictions on movement of people, including use of public or private vehicles, motorcycles, and directed closure of all shopping malls, arcades, hardware shops, all non-food stores, saloons, lodges and garages for 14 days, in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, a number of health cases have been reported, including deaths, due to limitation of public and private transport. Government strategies should minimize disruption in social services and develop contingent sources of comparable services. Disruption of community based services can result institutionalization of citizens which can lead to negative health outcomes.
When quarantines or lock downs are imposed, governments are obliged to ensure access to food, water, healthcare and care-giving support. Many older persons and People with Disabilities often times rely on uninterrupted home and community services and support. Broad quarantines and lock downs of indeterminate length rarely meet these criteria, are often imposed precipitously without ensuring the protection of those under quarantine – especially at risk populations.
Restrictions such as mandatory quarantine or isolation of symptomatic people must be carried out in accordance with the law, strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate objective, based on scientific evidence, proportionate to achieve that objective, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity and subject to review.
On March 16, 2020, a group of UN human rights experts said that “emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health… and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”
Photo Credit: Alex Esagala