Monday, 6 December, 2021

Human Rights In Time Of COVID-19

Jaya Shor Chapagain


A human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis,” said António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General. Guterres’s statement comes in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. No doubt, an array of measures, including lockdowns, imposed to manage the global health emergency, have had severe impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised people. They could go out just to get medical services and foodstuffs. Daily wage earners were the most-affected during the lockdown. Many workers have lost their jobs and other sources of livelihood due to the pandemic.

Human rights activists advocate the principles of non-discrimination, equality, dignity, justice and freedom. All the international treaties related to human rights guarantee that all people enjoy their human rights equally. Nepal is a signatory to many international human rights treaties and protocols. This makes the State obliged to respect, protect and promote these rights. Even during the lockdown, the government is obligated to ensure human rights of its citizens. In this context, the intriguing questions include: Are the voices of the voiceless are heard during the pandemic? Do the daily wage workers have access to food and health services? People should not be deprived of their rights to basic needs even during the state of emergency. That is why these rights are constitutionally categorised as non-derogable rights.
However, media reports suggest that interim relief programmes were insufficient to cater to the needs of the needy. Mohan Bahadur Budhathoki, 39, could be taken as an example. Budhathoki, who had been working as a porter in the Kalimati area of Kathmandu, lost his job due to lockdown. Subsequently, he died of starvation. Other consequences of lockdown seem to have appeared in the form of suicide. As a lethal violence, suicide constitutes a serious mental health problem caused by deprivation of basic rights.
Dev Kumar B.K. of Arghakhachi also killed himself on 17th June, while Ramesh Dhami, 32, from Bajhang district, followed suit after some days. Both of them had returned home from India. They were quarantined in suspect of having contracted COVID-19. The case of Siddhartha Aauja of Sanphebagar Municipality of Achham district is heart-rending. Aauja had been working as a cleaner at Bayalpata Hospital for the past two years. After receiving a letter of dismissal from the job, he became frustrated and took an unpleasant decision to kill himself. Hundreds of people are believed to have committed suicide during the lockdown. Nepal Police reveal that at least 709 people killed themselves in the first month of the current fiscal year alone. That means 22 persons committed suicide each day.
Everyone got excited with the dissemination of the news about establishing quarantines and isolation centres in each of the local levels in the initial period of the virus outbreak. But such facilities were found to be messy when they were really essential. Most of those facilities did not meet the WHO standards. They lack even basic facilities like nutritious food, drinking water, clothing, healthcare and personal hygiene provisions. So, people were reluctant to stay there. Even a rape case was reported in a quarantine of Lamkichuha Municipality of Kailali in June. That indicated a poor security management of the quarantine. Volunteers and health workers were found involved in the crime. However, the alleged perpetrators have been arrested and the case is now under the court of law.
These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. There are some other rights violation cases such as sexual and gender-based violence, caste-based discrimination and homicides during the pandemic. Additionally, there were some demonstrations against custodial deaths. Rallies were taken, demanding the effective governance. Against this backdrop, to gain the trust of people, the government has to prosecute all the cases of human rights violation and hold the criminals accountable for their crimes.
Of late, the Ministry of Health and Population has requested asymptomatic COVID-19 patients to live in home quarantine. This is good in one sense. But if the concerned family is not able to maintain health protocols or they do not have adequate space at home, it may create health hazards at community level. So, the government has to develop a safer guideline to make home quarantines safer. Proper monitoring mechanisms should also be in place. The government may involve local teachers in monitoring to make sure that the health guidelines are rigorously followed and quarantined family members have an easy access to basic facilities and are well treated by the community. Simultaneously, the government, in collaboration with the state and local authorities, needs to upgrade the existing isolation centres as per the WHO standards.

Praiseworthy initiative
However, government has made lots of commendable efforts to designate some hospitals as COVID-19 dedicated facilities across the country, increase the number of labs for testing the coronavirus, introduce interim relief packages for needy people, repatriation, establishment of quarantines and isolation wards, contract-tracing and sealing off the areas at risk to minimise the risk of the virus transmission. The government should also plan to mobilise health human resources at the district level in view of the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Besides, it is equally essential to set up more isolation wards, ICU beds, oxygen therapy and install ventilators in all the hospitals at the earliest possible to cope with the pandemic and protect people's rights to life.

(Chapagain is a researcher on human rights.