Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Let's not allow our leaders to use this crisis to push for repressive tactics domestically.

Let's not allow our leaders to use this crisis to push for repressive tactics domestically. (Photo: U.S. Army Photo by John Pellino/flickr)

The Coronavirus Conundrum and Human Rights

The outbreak necessitates heavy government involvement in our lives but this does not mean an overreach is justified.

These are strange times. From left to right, no one quite knows what to do or who to believe. While the rapid spread of the coronavirus has rendered many of us bewildered and confused, the edict to physically distance ourselves from others has managed to highlight both just how vulnerable and interdependent we all are. 

These are also extremely dangerous times. This is true not only, or even primarily, due to the deaths COVID-19 will cause, but rather due to the policies our governments are introducing or refusing to introduce.

As far as we know, physical distancing is very likely the most appropriate response to this pandemic. Yet this distancing is also facilitating an economic meltdown. This conundrum is at the crux of the current crisis—and perhaps also causing much of the bewilderment—since the best remedy for the outbreak itself produces dire effects, potentially much more harmful than those of the virus.

In order to mitigate such grim consequences, then, physical distancing must be countered with government social solidarity policies.

But as governments attempt to address the pandemic, we are beginning to witness a twofold approach characterised by governmental overreach on the one hand and by insufficient governmental reach on the other. Both approaches are likely to have a dramatic effect on basic human rights for hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, it is no hyperbole to say that more people will suffer and even die as a result of the way governments choose to handle the crisis than from contracting the virus.

Governmental overreach and civil rights

Once the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a "public health emergency of international concern", many countries followed suit. Given the circumstances, these declarations make sense, but we also need to be aware that they tend to unleash formidable executive power

The logic of executive power is straightforward: during a state of emergency, governments need flexibility to address emerging threats and to exercise all power vested in the state to alleviate the situation. While clearly the consequences of states assuming so much power varies, history teaches that emergency measures are frequently abused and at times become permanent. Indeed, they can provide fertile grounds for widespread human rights violations and may even provoke a transformation from democracy to a totalitarian regime.

Although we are still in the pandemic's early days, worrisome tendencies have begun to manifest themselves in a number of countries. 

From China to Israel, governments have required citizens to install smartphone apps, allowing officials to track individuals and determine whether they can leave their homes. In the United Kingdom, local elections have been postponed by a year and the police have been given powers to arrest suspected coronavirus carriers. Meanwhile, several countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as a justification to stifle social dissent, banning assemblies and protests.

And Israeli Minister of Justice  Amir Ohana decided to freeze court activities (thus postponing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial) before the country even experienced its first coronavirus-related death.

The fear is that the rapid adoption of such policies may well be the start of a much broader process curtailing basic political and civil rights. Where governments overreach in this way, they must be swiftly resisted. The different WhatsApp and other virtual groups currently being created within our communities to help those experiencing hardships will need to be mobilised to launch widespread opposition. 

Implication of insufficient reach on economic rights

Alongside governmental overreach, we are also witnessing insufficient governmental intervention (often in one and the same country). As each day passes and more and more countries move to partial or complete lockdown, it is becoming clearer that we are entering a global recession, necessitating massive government investments to secure the livelihood of millions of people.

Across the globe, the multibillion-dollar tourism industry has been brought to a standstill, while schools and businesses are shutting their doors, and thousands of companies are being forced to decrease production or temporarily shut assembly and manufacturing plants. This is already disrupting global supply chains as well as demand for goods and services. In the coming days, then, we can expect to see a domino effect, which will lead to a dramatic economic collapse.

Millions of people who live from hand to mouth have already begun losing their monthly salaries (the right to livelihood), and thus will be unable to pay rent or mortgage or put food on the table (right to a standard of living). Many of those who become ill do not have paid sick leave, and for those who do, it seldom covers their actual salary.

As to the right to healthcare, we already know from Italy that even relatively robust public health systems find it difficult—and increasingly impossible during this pandemic—to address the population's needs, and many coronavirus patients and others suffering from ailments not related to the virus will not receive adequate treatment. This is the direct outcome of years of austerity, where public healthcare systems were starved of resources.

In countries that do not have public health systems, like the United States, it is extremely likely that the predicament of those people who fall sick will be much, much worse. And the situation of millions of refugees trapped in camps - from Bangladesh through Greece to the US-Mexico border—is even more catastrophic given that most have no access at all to tertiary care.

To stop this egregious violation of economic and social rights—and to counter lack of reach—governments need not only to insist on physical distancing but must also adopt a series of progressive policies that are even more radical than those introduced during the New Deal era. Many ideas are floating around, but these are some of the most urgent:

  • A living universal income and a freeze on mortgages and rents for people under the poverty line, as well as for those who lose their jobs, the homeless, gig economy workers, the unemployed and small businesses.
  • Mandatory paid sick leave that matches one's salary, so that poor sick people will not feel obliged to go to work. 
  • Free and comprehensive treatment for coronavirus and potentially related symptoms, no questions asked (about immigration status), so that no one goes untreated because of fear or poverty. This could entail expanding Medicare to all Americans, for example.
  • Government investment in homeless and women's shelters, and food banks. And massive medical aid to refugees.

These are, of course, just a few of the policies that need to be immediately institutionalised if we are to prevent the lethal violations that will inevitably arise from the economic meltdown.

Coronavirus as an opportunity for a Green New Deal

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic can also be an opportunity.

As the crisis brutally exposes how neoliberal policies implemented over the past 50 years have rendered vast segments of the world's population vulnerable, it can also—and should—be used to launch a global pushback campaign.

Solidarity with the most vulnerable alongside care for our planet can be the guiding principles for massive public investments. Indeed, citizens across the globe must use the crisis to demand the implementation of a Green New Deal

Given the speed with which so many of the emergency measures have been introduced, we now know that dramatic transformation can be carried out. And quickly. The current crisis teaches us that neoliberal capitalism has no way of dealing with pandemics like this one. It is time for a new forward-looking vision—for all of our sakes. While these are indeed strange and dangerous times, they can also lead to new beginnings.

© 2021 Al-Jazeera English
Neve Gordon

Neve Gordon

Neve Gordon is a professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London. He is an Israeli activist and the author of "Israel's Occupation" (2008) and co-author (with Nicola Perugini) of "The Human Right to Dominate" (2015) and "Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire" (2020).

Catherine Rottenberg

Catherine Rottenberg

Catherine Rottenberg teaches 20th-century American literature and feminist theory.

"I'm sure this will be all over the corporate media, right?"
That’s what one longtime Common Dreams reader said yesterday after the newsroom reported on new research showing how corporate price gouging surged to a nearly 70-year high in 2021. While major broadcasters, newspapers, and other outlets continue to carry water for their corporate advertisers when they report on issues like inflation, economic inequality, and the climate emergency, our independence empowers us to provide you stories and perspectives that powerful interests don’t want you to have. But this independence is only possible because of support from readers like you. You make the difference. If our support dries up, so will we. Our crucial Mid-Year Campaign is now underway and we are in emergency mode to make sure we raise the necessary funds so that every day we can bring you the stories that corporate, for-profit outlets ignore and neglect. Please, if you can, support Common Dreams today.


Scores Feared Dead and Wounded as Russian Missiles Hit Ukraine Shopping Center

"People just burned alive," said Ukraine's interior minister, while the head of the Poltava region stated that "it is too early to talk about the final number of the killed."

Brett Wilkins ·

Biodiversity Risks Could Persist for Decades After Global Temperature Peak

One study co-author said the findings "should act as a wake-up call that delaying emissions cuts will mean a temperature overshoot that comes at an astronomical cost to nature and humans that unproven negative emission technologies cannot simply reverse."

Jessica Corbett ·

Amnesty Report Demands Biden Take Action to End Death Penalty

"The world is waiting for the USA to do what almost 100 countries have achieved during this past half-century—total abolition of the death penalty," said the group.

Julia Conley ·

Pointing to 'Recently Obtained Evidence,' Jan. 6 Panel Calls Surprise Tuesday Hearing

The announcement came less than a week after the House panel delayed new hearings until next month, citing a "deluge" of fresh evidence.

Common Dreams staff ·

Looming US Supreme Court Climate Decision Could 'Doom' Hope for Livable Future

"The immediate issue is the limits of the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases," said one scientist. "The broader issue is the ability of federal agencies to regulate anything at all."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo