Two Years Into Pandemic, Human Rights Watch Warns of Lessons Not Learned

A man receives a shot of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, March 5, 2021. (Photo: Joy Nabukewa/Xinhua via Getty)

Two Years Into Pandemic, Human Rights Watch Warns of Lessons Not Learned

"As we enter the third year," an expert at the group says, "the inequities that have characterized the past two years are only being further entrenched."

Experts at a leading U.S. human rights group marked the two-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic declaration on Friday by highlighting lessons that the global community should apply going forward.

"Policy responses which only focus on the situations within a single country's borders are both shortsighted and incompatible with international human rights norms."

"Ending the pandemic is not the same thing as ignoring it," said Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement. "Thousands of people continue to die from Covid-19 daily, while billions who can't get vaccines remain in danger of severe illness and death."

While large shares of the populations in wealthy nations have received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, less than 14% of people in low-income countries have gotten their first dose, according to Our World in Data.

Though various official trackers put the global Covid-19 death toll at over six million, a study published Thursday by The Lancetestimated that the true figure through the end of 2021 could top 18 million, with the much higher number resulting from diagnostic or reporting problems in many places as well as deaths related to indirect effects of the pandemic, like strains on hospitals and delays in care.

Critics of "vaccine apartheid," including protesters who joined #EndCOVIDMonopolies actions around the world Friday, blame rich countries and Big Pharma for hoarding doses, withholding recipes and technology, not investing in regional hubs to ramp up production, and refusing to temporarily waive intellectual property rights--despite IP debates at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that have dragged on for nearly 18 months.

"It is unconscionable that wealthy nations continue to reduce lifesaving healthcare to a tradeable commodity and do not use their power at the WTO to ensure that the right to health is prioritized over pharmaceutical industry and trade interests," declared Hassan.

"Meanwhile, social protection, accessible health information, paid sick leave and flexible working arrangements, and accessible education remain critical, particularly for marginalized communities and people with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19," she said.

Hassan asserted that "policymakers need to be conscious of how their own privilege may bias their perspective on the pandemic, and uphold the right to health for everyone, not just those in similarly safe positions."

In a commentary published Friday, Akshaya Kumar, HRW's director of crisis advocacy, explained how governments "could recalibrate their approach to the pandemic" based on the group's analyses of failures to meet human rights obligations and "attempts to use the pandemic as a ploy to expand powers, squeeze critics, and suppress dissent."

"As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the inequities that have characterized the past two years are only being further entrenched," she wrote. "Our research points to how things could have been different if human rights had been central in more policy responses. It also points to a more equitable way forward."

Kumar offered seven specific recommendations, citing examples from across the globe:

  • Protect freedom of expression and access to timely and accurate information;
  • Protect healthcare workers from infection and burnout;
  • Safely restore quality education for all children and urgently tackle education loss;
  • Lifesaving health products should be available, affordable, and accessible;
  • Emergency responses should be proportionate and nondiscriminatory;
  • Strengthen social safety nets; and
  • Center marginalized populations in designing policies.

Emphasizing the importance of clear and correct information, Kumar pointed out the Indian government's suppression of dissent during the Delta variant wave, the Brazilian and Mexican presidents downplaying the severity of the virus, how misinformation and a failure to reach marginalized communities in Hong Kong hampered vaccination rates, and that "U.S. government officials admitted to not seeing either Delta or Omicron 'coming'--but public health experts had been warning of this eventuality for months."

To advocate improvements for healthcare professionals, she pointed to strikes over labor conditions in Kenya, failures to pay frontline workers in the Philippines, and difficulties accessing vaccines in war-torn Yemen.

While education issues have impacted children globally, Kumar highlighted that the Brazilian government decreased federal resources for schooling and in the United Kingdom, "the poor quality and uninhabitable temporary accommodation being offered to families in need by local councils made it harder for children to find a quiet environment to concentrate."

Kumar called out rich nations and the pharmaceutical industry for not adequately boosting vaccine production. Although the proposed WTO waiver has long been stalled, she noted that "the European Commission, which had opposed and blocked the effort, has promised to work with the African Commission to 'deliver a solution' on the issue by spring this year."

The expert also explained how some governments have used the pandemic as a "pretext to grab power and crack down" on dissent, outlining events in Cambodia, China, Kenya, the Maldives, the Philippines, Poland, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uganda, and the United States.

Failures to help people most affected by the pandemic's economic impact have also been widespread, Kumar wrote, from Ghana, Kenya, Lebanon, and Nepal, to Nigeria, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States. She urged governments and the International Monetary Fund to "refrain from imposing austerity that hurts investment in establishing or expanding social protection systems so that they are broad enough to fully protect people's rights."

Kumar explained how women and girls, Indigenous people, migrants, and prisoners have faced specific issues during the pandemic, from spikes in gender-based violence and limited access to vaccines to dangerous conditions that increase the risk of contracting the virus.

Reiterating the need to "center marginalized communities, both within societies and across countries," she concluded that "the rapid spread of the Delta and Omicron variants in 2021 illustrated that policy responses which only focus on the situations within a single country's borders are both shortsighted and incompatible with international human rights norms, which include a duty to international assistance and cooperation to protect and fulfill the right to health."

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