Covid 19 as a Threat to Human Rights Across the Globe by Taru Bhardwaj

Covid 19 as a Threat to Human Rights Across the Globe by Taru Bhardwaj


On 11th March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed that an outbreak of the disease COVID-19, first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China had reached the level of a global pandemic. Citing concerns with the frightening levels of spread and severity, the WHO called for governments to take urgent and aggressive actions to stop the spread of the deadly virus. The COVID-19 crisis is at different stages across the globe. Europe is beginning to ease its lockdowns, while infections in Asia and Latin America are expected to peak soon.


In India, the lockdown has already disproportionately hurt marginalized communities due to loss of livelihood and lack of food, shelter, health, and other basic needs. The government has a responsibility to protect the health and well being of the population but some of these steps have left tens of thousands of out-of-work migrant workers stranded with rail and bus services shut down. The closing of state borders have caused disturbance in the supply of essential goods leading to inflation and fear of shortages. Thousands of homeless people are in need of protection. Police actions to penalize those violating orders have reportedly resulted in abuses against people in need. The Indian government is facing an extraordinary challenge to protect over a billion densely packed people, but ramped up efforts to prevent the spread of the corona virus in India need to include rights protections. With more than eighty percent of India’s workforce employed in the informal sector, and one-third working as casual laborers, it is crucial that the authorities make use of maximum available resources to ensure the delivery of services.

The government should not use Adhaar card based biometric authentication for the distribution of free food grains to the poor. Even in normal circumstances, failure of Aadhar has led to denial of essential services and benefits. In Delhi, Muslims displaced by the communal cruelty in February urgently need relief, compensation and shelter. For weeks, videos have been circulating on Whatsapp falsely suggesting that Muslims might be deliberately spreading the virus. The government should pay awaiting remuneration for all the work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and expand its scope to those now forced out of work. Rural laborers are not able to work because of the lockdown and should be given wages during the crisis. Farming communities are facing losses during harvest season and the government needs to set up procurement to protect agricultural income and to save the production.

In Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu, health workers and airline staff faced discrimination from their neighbors and landlords threatened to evict them, fearing they could be carriers of COVID-19. People who have been quarantined have also been stigmatized and bullied with eviction. Human Rights Watch is concerned about stigmatization of individuals and a rise in vigilante violence. Police in several states including Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have arbitrarily punished people or publicly shamed them, forcing them to hold posters saying “I am an enemy of society because I will not stay at home.” In spite of increasing mob violence in India, the state governments of Rajasthan and Karnataka made the names and addresses of people who were affected by COVID-19 public, putting them at risk of assault. In Delhi, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh, officials marked homes where people were under quarantine and in some cases displayed their names. The Election Commission permitted the use of ineradicable ink to put a stamp on people for home quarantine and Maharashtra government said it would stamp the left hand of all those sent to home quarantine increasing their risk of abuse.

The authorities in India should take all necessary steps to ensure that everyone has access to food and medical care and that the poor and marginalized are not mistreated or stigmatized. The Indian government’s responsibility to protect its people from the outbreak should not approach at the cost of human rights violations.


International human rights law assures everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. Attention to human rights like non discrimination and human rights principles such as transparency and respect for human dignity can foster an effective response amidst the turmoil and disruption that automatically results in times of crisis and limit the harms that can come from the imposition of overly broad measures. Under the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, that most countries have adopted, everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

In a number of countries, the governments have failed to uphold the right to freedom of expression, taking actions against journalists and healthcare workers. This restricted effective communication about the onset of the disease and undermined trust in government actions.

Chinese government at the starting withheld basic information about the corona virus outbreak from the public, underreported cases of infection, downplayed the severity of the infection and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans. Authorities detained individuals for reporting on the epidemic on social media and internet users for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, and curbed media reporting.

In Iran, the outbreak appeared after authorities had severely damaged public trust by brutally repressing widespread anti government protests and lying about shooting down a civilian airliner.

In Thailand, whistleblowers in the public health sector, online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they condemned government responses to the outbreak, raised concerns about a possible cover up and reported alleged corruption related to the hoardings and profiteering of surgical masks and other supplies.

Since the corona virus outbreak, news reportings from a number of countries have documented bias, racism, xenophobia and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Incidents that took place includes physical attacks and beatings, violent bullying in schools, angry threats, discrimination at school or in workplaces, and the use of derogatory language in news reports and on social media platforms.


Such prejudice and political patronage of vigilante attacks will ultimately threaten fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. As the economy falters, jobs disappear, resources become scarce, and as people panic because the number of rising cases, there is increasing risk that discrimination and violence will spread. Combating the growth of COVID-19 requires that health facilities have adequate water, sanitation, hygiene, healthcare waste management and cleaning.