UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said it is essential that governments introducing measures to impede the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, undertake a range of additional actions to reduce the potentially negative impact such measures may have on people's lives.
"As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often-difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken," Bachelet said. "However our efforts to combat this virus won't work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically."
"Such people include those on low incomes, isolated rural populations, people with underlying health conditions, people with disabilities and older people living alone or in institutions," she added.
Lockdowns, quarantines and other such measures to contain and combat the spread of COVID-19 should always be carried out in strict accordance with human rights standards and in a way that is necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk -- but even when they are, they may have serious repercussions on people's lives, the High Commissioner said.
While authorities may judge it necessary to close schools, this may result in parents having to stay home and unable to work, a measure that is likely to disproportionately affect women.
Staying off work in order to "self-isolate" may result in lost pay or a lost job, with far-ranging consequences for people's livelihoods and lives. Health care for people with chronic or serious conditions may be impeded by the response to the outbreak. Disruption to trade and travel is likely to have a big impact, especially on small- and medium-sized businesses and the people they employ and serve.
"Governments need to be ready to respond in a range of ways to unintended consequences of their actions aimed at the coronavirus. Businesses will also need to play a role, including responding with flexibility to the impact on their employees," Bachelet said.
The High Commissioner welcomed the fact that some governments, as well as international organisations, are starting to put in place measures to mitigate the impact on people's economic and social rights.
"Given we are all operating in uncharted territory, I encourage States to establish ways of sharing information on good practices they are currently taking to alleviate the negative socio-economic effects of COVID-19 and the efforts to halt its spread. International solidarity and co-operation are more needed than ever. It is also clear that resources need to be directed to social protection so that people are able to survive economically during what may become a protracted crisis," she said.
"COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought," Bachelet said.
To effectively combat the outbreak means ensuring everyone has access to treatment, and is not denied health care because they cannot pay for it or because of stigma.
Governments need to ensure all relevant information reaches everyone without exception, including in readily understandable formats and languages, and adapted for people with specific needs, such as children, the visually- and hearing-impaired, and those with limited or no ability to read.
"Being open and transparent is key to empowering and encouraging people to participate in measures designed to protect their own health and that of the wider population, especially when trust in the authorities has been eroded. It also helps to counter false or misleading information that can do so much harm by fuelling fear and prejudice," the High Commissioner said.
"I also urge authorities in countries affected by COVID-19 to take all necessary steps to address incidents of xenophobia or stigmatisation," she added.