April 29, 2020

Governments across the globe have implemented policies in an effort to “flatten the curve” and mitigate the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools and businesses have closed, travel has been restricted and individuals have been ordered to stay home to enforce the physical distancing guidelines that are critical to preventing disease transmission.

Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

Dr. Benjamin Mason Meier

However, the extent to which these policies constrain individual rights has been overlooked, according to Benjamin Mason Meier, JD, LLM, PhD, adjunct associate professor of health policy and management at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. This can have a detrimental impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

In the forthcoming text on Infectious Diseases in the New Millennium: Legal and Ethical Challenges, Meier has led the development of the chapter on “Rights-Based Approaches to Preventing, Detecting, and Responding to Infectious Disease,” which addresses how approaches to infectious disease control have evolved to focus on human rights, beginning in the HIV/AIDS crisis and continuing to evolve in the face of twenty-first-century outbreaks like Ebola and COVID-19. This chapter, drawing from his previous examination of infectious disease governance in Human Rights in Global Health: Rights-Based Governance for a Globalizing World, elaborates on the fundamental link between human rights and heath and how this link can provide the cornerstone for policymaking decisions during a public health emergency.

For many lawmakers, public health policy comes with an implicit responsibility to protect the health of populations as a whole as opposed to the health of a single individual. This poses an ostensible challenge to the protection of human rights, especially in cases where limitations must be placed on movement or privacy in order to mitigate and track the spread of a disease.

Oftentimes the people who are disproportionately at risk for the harm that can come from grappling with this challenge are the most vulnerable, such as those who face socioeconomic, gender or racial inequities. Meier and his co-authors suggest that in response to this challenge, lawmakers adopt a framework that examines the human rights impact of public health policies.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the risks for human rights violations are increasingly high. Travel bans have been indiscriminately applied. Limitations on privacy have come from smartphone and social media surveillance that is compulsory in some countries. Many stay-at-home orders have negatively impacted the health and human rights of populations who are homeless or precariously employed, and enforcement of such orders carries an increased risk of detainment or violence. Access to quality healthcare has been restricted for many due to prohibitive cost, lack of medical insurance or discrimination. And low-income countries are increasingly vulnerable due to lack of social distancing capabilities, limited health care resources or international restrictions imposed by higher-income countries.

The impact of the coronavirus on global public health offers an opportunity for policymakers to guarantee accountability for government obligations and ensure responsibility for the rights and dignity of all people. Viewed through the lens of human rights, such public health policies should: avoid limitations on individual freedoms that are needlessly restrictive, harmful or discriminatory; support the economic and social entitlements inherent in the right to health; and secure global governance as a foundation for global solidarity in the pandemic response.

“Global solidarity will be essential in facing this common threat,” Meier stated. “Human rights provide a foundation for global solidarity under international law, reflecting the obligations on governments, the entitlements of individuals and the imperative for cooperation.”

Meier and his co-authors will further elaborate on the risks of human rights violations during the COVID-19 pandemic in a forthcoming article for the Bulletin of the World Health Organization and in his forthcoming textbook, Foundations of Global Health & Human Rights, which is scheduled to be published by the Oxford University Press in June 2020.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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