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Protecting human rights and the rule of law in times of crisis

23 June 2020
Brigit Toebes
Brigit Toebes

It may feel contradictory that something that happened on the other side of the globe is now forcing us to act locally. But while we are confined to our homes, gardens and balconies, we should not lose sight of the global dimension of this crisis, says Brigit Toebes. According to her, COVID-19-related lockdown measures have prompted a crisis of international law and human rights.

Text: Henrietta Doe, Communication Office, University of Groningen

Everything happens fast in a crisis. As governments rushed to stop the spread of covid-19 pandemic, they took strict and broad measures to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. In their responses, policies and decisions that were taken were not always consistent with human rights principles and the rule of law, says Toebes, a professor of Health Law in a Global Perspective at the Faculty of Law of the University of Groningen.

What are the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on human rights and the rule of law?

Measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives (e.g. social distancing, a ban on public events, restrictions in healthcare settings) are at tension with individual rights, such as our rights to privacy and freedom of movement which are protected by both international human rights law and domestic constitutional law. Countries responded differently to this crisis: while some countries have undertaken a more moderate approach, other countries announced a state of emergency and have set aside human rights completely. After this crisis, we need a serious evaluation of all these interventions and approaches in order to better prepare for future outbreaks.

‘Measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus are at tension with individual rights.’ (© photo: Jeffrey Groeneweg/Hollandse Hoogte)
‘Measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus are at tension with individual rights.’ (© photo: Jeffrey Groeneweg/Hollandse Hoogte)

How can we counter fake news and give facts and science a fighting chance?

It is important to counter fake news. While governments have a role to play here, they must also respect freedom of expression. Some governments seem to be using this crisis to further restrict freedom of expression, such as the silencing of medical experts, journalists, and others. It is vital that these fundamental rights are guaranteed and protected also in times of crisis.

COVID-19 shows how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases. Where should our priority be?

While the overall mortality of infectious diseases is much smaller than deaths due to chronic diseases, infectious diseases are a matter of huge concern, both domestically and internationally. Infectious diseases can cause not only suffering and death, but also major disruptions to national and global economies. We should also not lose sight of chronic diseases. Most people die globally from a chronic illness (71% of all deaths) and often prematurely (before the age of 70). We see this both in developed and low-and middle-income countries. This is largely due to the changes in global lifestyles and consumption patterns. In my inaugural lecture and ongoing research, I pay close attention to chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The tobacco, food and beverages industries play a dubious role here as they take insufficient responsibility for the products they place on the market. They are not formally bound by the human rights treaties (only states are), but it is increasingly argued that, given the huge impact that their products have on our health and wellbeing, corporations have corporate social responsibility to make healthier products and not to market unhealthy products so aggressively.

‘COVID-19 shows that infectious and chronic diseases are intertwined.’ (© photo: Robin Utrecht/Hollandse Hoogte)
‘COVID-19 shows that infectious and chronic diseases are intertwined.’ (© photo: Robin Utrecht/Hollandse Hoogte)

Do you think health laws and policies are powerful tools in promoting healthy behaviour while limiting chronic diseases?

Health law has an important role to play, as laws and policies are powerful tools in curbing unhealthy behaviour. Powerful examples include the price increase of tobacco products, sugar taxes, marketing bans, the introduction of smoke free zones, etc.

How are chronic and infectious diseases intertwined?

COVID-19 also shows that infectious and chronic diseases are intertwined. Data have shown there is evidence that obesity and smoking can lead to higher risk of complications from the coronavirus, as the vast majority of patients are obese. This points again at the importance of reducing unhealthy behavior in our society. So, this is where policies to reduce chronic and infectious diseases may come together. Yet we must be careful of stigma when addressing COVID-19 risk factors. Some journalists have suggested that we are in a situation where society at large is paying for the unhealthy behaviour of some. Voicing these concerns seems crude and potentially leads to stigmatization of persons who are obese or smokers.

Should the World Health Organization (WHO) be given more financial and legal power for future global health threats?

The WHO should be entrusted as it has built tremendous expertise in the field of infectious disease control over the past 73 years of its existence. It has a yearly budget of just three billion dollars which enables it to monitor global infectious disease outbreaks and many more, including the realisation of universal Health Coverage. It is important that the major part of this money is donated through governments, which is currently not the case. Private funders often set conditions on how the money should be spent, which restricts the WHO in its spending. It is also in our interests that the WHO helps with building resilient health systems that are sufficiently equipped to deal with future outbreaks in low- and middle-income countries. If outbreaks are poorly monitored and dealt with in other parts of the world, it can affect us too.

What key lessons can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 outbreak has shown the need for better equipped health systems. Also, a rapid response is essential in the event of an outbreak in which the country concerned should formally within 24 hours notify the WHO, and in which a response at the domestic level could prevent further spread, save lives and protect the economy. And yet, governments have failed to comply sufficiently to the WHO’s 2005 International Health Regulations which require them to have a better equipped health infrastructure to deal with future outbreaks. This, in my view, is a human rights violation. The current crisis should be a warning that these requirements are to be taken seriously.


Brigit Toebes

Last modified:29 June 2020 08.15 a.m.
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