On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and called on states to take urgent actions to tackle it. Most European countries have introduced strict measures to stop the spread of the virus and to cope with the increasing pressures on their public health systems.
Human rights must be at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts from the start, in order to best protect public health and support the groups and people who are most at risk. States have an obligation to protect and guarantee everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
All European states have committed to fulfilling the right to health and have signed international and regional human rights treaties to that purpose. In the context of the current pandemic, authorities should engage all available resources to counter the pandemic while fulfilling the right to health.
States have the duty to protect the right to health of everyone as everyone is at risk of contracting COVID-19. However, some groups are at heightened risk of infection: these for example include health workers, people in detention or closed facilities or people who are homeless. Moreover, older people, people with specific underlying health conditions or people with disabilities are likely to face more serious health risks associated with COVID-19. Governments must put in place measures to ensure that their right to health is protected.
In the context of public emergencies, states can exceptionally impose restrictions on certain human rights in order to protect public health. In most European countries, governments have passed emergency laws and taken measures that restrict freedom of movement, association, expression and public assembly, the right to private and family life and right to work, for example, by implementing quarantines, travel bans, and by temporarily closing schools, businesses and factories. While some emergency measures are justified during a global public health threat, governments must ensure that such measures are temporary, subject to scrutiny and periodic review, and always necessary and proportionate and motivated by legitimate public health objectives.
As socio-economic factors are closely related to health outcomes, structural socio-economic inequalities in Europe make some groups more vulnerable to adverse consequences of the pandemic. These include people, such as Roma, who live in informal settlements with limited access to water and sanitation; refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers in inadequate refugee camps or in detention; people held in prisons and other detention facilities; as well as people who are homeless – the groups with limited or no access to sanitary products or resources to implement preventive measures such as frequent handwashing, physical distancing and isolation. The enforcement of some preventive measures imposed by the states may result in indirect discrimination of certain groups or individuals who are not able to comply with them. Moreover, restrictions on freedom of movement and other measures present specific risks to children and have a gendered impact, for example on women and girls who are victims of domestic violence and who may be forced to self-isolate with their abusive partners or relatives.
The police enforcement of restrictions is likely to have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities in Europe who are already routinely subject to discriminatory identity checks and unlawful use of force.
Amnesty International does not take a position on the type of public health measures governments should take as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. However, governments should ensure that all such measures are consistent with their human rights obligations. The below list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” could serve as guidance in their responses to the pandemic.