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To Ensure 'No One Is Left Behind,' UN Chief Says Human Rights Must Be Central in Fight Against Covid-19

"We are all in this together. In what world do we want to live when this is all over? The way in which we respond now can help to shape that future—for better or for worse."

A migrant carrying a toddler stands in front of the border wall that divides Sunland Park, New Mexico with Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico on March 14, 2020. (Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned Thursday that the global coronavirus pandemic is rapidly becoming an international human rights crisis and urged governments to put people "center-stage" in their efforts to confront and recover from its devastation.

"Human rights cannot be an afterthought in times of crisis—and we now face the biggest international crisis in generations," said Guterres. "A human rights lens puts everyone in the picture and ensures that no one is left behind."

"Homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, suppression of information, and unemployment are all human rights issues."
—Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International
In a 22-page policy brief (pdf), Guterres outlined human rights that are "at the frontline" of the coronavirus pandemic—such as reproductive rights and freedom of movement—and cautioned that political leaders could attempt to exploit the Covid-19 crisis to trample on those rights, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and U.S. President Donald Trump have already.

"Against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, and a pushback against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic," said Guterres. "This is unacceptable."

Guterres said that while some restrictions to freedom of movement have been necessary to stem the spread of Covid-19, such limitations "should be strictly necessary for that purpose, proportionate, and non-discriminatory."

"The availability of effective and generalized testing and tracing, and targeted quarantine measures, can mitigate the need for more indiscriminate restrictions," Guterres added.

The Secretary-General also emphasized the importance of universal health coverage (UHC) to fighting the pandemic, which has infected more than 2.6 million people across the globe and placed heavy strains on national healthcare systems.

"Those states with strong and resilient healthcare systems are better equipped to respond to crises," said Guterres. "Healthcare systems all around the world are being stretched, with some at risk of collapse. UHC promotes strong and resilient health systems, reaching those who are vulnerable and promoting pandemic preparedness and prevention."

Guterres said that if and when a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, it must be made "accessible to everyone, everywhere."

As governments take action to recover from the damage done by the coronavirus in the future, Guterres called for a focus on "ending poverty and inequalities and addressing the underlying human rights concerns that have left us vulnerable to the pandemic and greatly exacerbated its effects."

"The recovery must also respect the rights of future generations, enhancing climate action aiming at carbon neutrality by 2050 and protecting biodiversity," said Guterres.

"We are all in this together," Guterres added. "In what world do we want to live when this is all over? The way in which we respond now can help to shape that future—for better or for worse."

Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's deputy director of global issues, praised Guterres' report as "a timely reminder that human rights need to be at the center of the response and recovery."

"Homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, suppression of information, and unemployment are all human rights issues," Cockburn said in a statement. "Poor prison conditions and overcrowded refugee camps are suddenly front-page news, but to many people, this suffering has been a daily reality for as long as they can remember."

"If one person is sick with Covid-19 we are all at risk, and the same is true for human rights," said Cockburn. "A world that protects the rights of a lucky few is unhealthy and unsustainable."

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