COVID-19 Translated into Three Years of ‘Human Rights Violations’
Prof Lawrence Gostin, a member of the independent Panel for a Global Health Convention
Prof Lawrence Gostin, a member of the independent Panel for a Global Health Convention

“Every aspect of the COVID-19 response, beginning with the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan to China’s current Zero-COVID strategy, has had severe restrictions on human rights,” according to Prof Lawrence Gostin, a member of the independent Panel for a Global Health Convention.

Speaking Monday afternoon at the UNITE Global Summit in Lisbon, he called on parliamentarians to take a “moment of reflection” on the untold human suffering that resulted from the pandemic.

“It is not just the millions of lives lost or the trillions of dollars lost,” said Gostin, “but the vast deprivation of freedom, noxious discrimination and erosion of democratic ideals.”

Although Monday’s sessions focused specifically on pandemic response and preparedness – human rights will be tackled more thoroughly on Wednesday – Gostin used the summit to speak to participants via Zoom and recount the many human rights violations that ensued over the past three years.

He also issued a battle cry for parliamentarians to put practices in place to halt these violations before the next pandemic.

He recalled how, in the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, there was “less than full transparency” in terms of reporting the outbreak to the word. Even the transfer of the genomic sequence of the virus came “somewhat late.”

“There was a crackdown on protesters and particularly a brave, whistle-blower doctor who later died in Wuhan,” he Gostin said.

He then fast-forwarded to China’s current zero-COVID strategy, which he said is enforced via extreme surveillance and restriction methods.

But the violations did and do not end in the Red Dragon state, said Gostin.

Countries cramped down on political protests, delayed elections, enacted abusive restrictions and arrested members of marginalised populations all in the name of COVID, according to Gostin.

These violations could be bucketed into two categories, he said – one: violations of political and democratic rights, and two: unequal and discriminatory practices.

‘Vaccine apartheid’

“There was vaccine apartheid, as populations in the United States, Europe and other high-income countries were protected and so many others were left behind, in Africa and other low-income countries,” Gostin noted.

Countries from Egypt and Russia, to Venezuela, Madagascar and Bangladesh threatened the civil or political rights of their citizens, violating the right to freedom of expression and access to accurate information from journalists and healthcare workers.

Hungary’s prime minister even used emergency powers to direct funding away from cities that were opposition strongholds.

Those who were disfavoured in marginalized populations fell victim to arbitrary arrests. For example, Venezuela targeted returning refugees for quarantine in inhumane and degrading facilities, he said.

“We all remember the initial scramble for diagnostics tests, personal protective equipment and ventilators,” Gostin said. “But global outrage should have peaked when the most vulnerable in the world were unable to get vaccines.”

In June 2021, according to Gostin, one-third of people in rich countries were fully vaccinated while only 0.2% of people in low-income countries had two shots. The COVAX facility never got the funding it needed to ensure full vaccinations nor could it get the vaccine doses it required.

“Today, these inequalities are manifested in antiviral therapeutics like Paxlovid,” Gostin continued.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reverberated into other spheres, with lower standards of living, people being pushed into absolute poverty, inadequate education and nutrition – all exacerbated now because of the Ukraine crisis.”

He said the crises caused by COVID-19 and Ukraine merged with climate change, and have left more than 200 million people in acute hunger.

“At its core, human rights are about human dignity,” Gostin concluded. “It is now for us to honour … the lives of everyone harmed by these violations by undertaking transformational reforms in global health, human rights security and inequity so that when the next crisis hits, we will at least reassert the fundamental principle of human dignity that emerged after World War II.”

The UNITE Global Summit runs from Dec. 5-7, 2022. Click here for full coverage. Reporting for this series was supported by UNITE Parliamentarians for Global Health.

Image Credits: Maayan Hoffman, Screenshot.

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