Government’s Covid-19 response should uphold Human Rights
Extraordinary situations like pandemics raise questions about the actions that States may take to address the crisis. Naturally, most governments are inclined to seek absolute powers and restrict the enjoyment of certain fundamental human rights. Uganda is no exception. When COVID-19 started spreading globally, the Government swung into action and imposed tough measures. It announced a mandatory quarantine for certain travellers, later shut down the airport and closed all boarders. Furthermore, it closed schools and places of worship and restricted commercial activities, banned public transport and private cars. Sadly, despite these measures, the pandemic still made its way and so far, over 50 confirmed cases exist in Uganda. Although most of the said measures might be justifiable, they raise certain human rights concerns that merit attention.
International human rights law imposes three core obligations on States, namely; respect, protect and fulfil. Generally, the obligation to respect implores States to refrain from interfering with citizen’s rights. The obligation to protect commands States to take measures to prevent violations and provide adequate remedies in case of breach. Lastly, the obligation to fulfil entails taking measures to enable the enjoyment of rights. A myriad of human rights texts guarantee every person’s right to the highest attainable of health and this includes the right to prevention, treatment and control of diseases as well as access to health services and health-related information. In the context of serious public health threats, States are permitted to limit certain human rights to facilitate measures to deal with the threat and protect the population. The restrictive measures must be grounded on a law that conforms to international human rights standards and is accessible to all citizens. The limitations should be necessary i.e. in response to a public need, pursues a legitimate aim and the measures should be commensurate to the aim. Such restrictions should not be arbitrary and discriminatory when applied. They should be time-bound and subject to review.
Undoubtedly, Covid-19 is a serious public health threat which may justify the limitations of certain rights. Imposition of mandatory quarantine, lock downs and curfews mean for example that children cannot go to school, believers cannot congregate to pray, people cannot go to work, revellers cannot have fun freely, one cannot travel outside or inside the country among others. Obviously, certain groups of people are disproportionately affected by these measures especially those with certain medical conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, prisoners, low income workers, among others. All these combined bring to the fore, the need for a human rights-based approach to the government measures. Human rights principles like non-discrimination, transparency and respect for human dignity must be upheld even in such tough times to mitigate the harm caused by the stringent steps.
Whereas the government, to its credit, has made commendable efforts to manage the situation, debates persist as to the legal basis of some measures so far undertaken like the lockdown. The highhandedness with which some Directives have been enforced like wanton beating of the population exacerbate the human rights situation. Similarly, the mishaps in the quarantine process including allegations of bribery, indeterminate periods of isolation, etc are a point of concern. The seemingly uncoordinated nature of Directives from authorities raise several enforcement issues.
As such, it is incumbent upon the Government of Uganda to ensure that all its measures to counter COVID-19 must first have a known legal basis. Citizens should have access to accurate and timely information regarding the pandemic. Initiatives like food distribution should be non-discriminatory. Government should also consider decongesting prisons through non-custodial sentences where applicable and granting bail to the several pre-trial detainees for lesser offences. Health workers should be equipped with the appropriate tools to safely discharge their obligations. The government needs to ensure the privacy of affected people and discourage any form of stigma. Lastly, caution should be made to ensure that the current measures do not degenerate to totalitarianism and abuse of power.