A Human Rights based response to COVID-19

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The Human Rights Council in session.

While COVID-19 affects people of all backgrounds, factors such as socioeconomic status and access to health care services make some groups especially vulnerable to the virus.

Researchers in the United States have found that “African Americans are dying at disproportionately higher rates compared to all other ethnicities” because of COVID-19. In the United Kingdom, a report by The Guardian confirmed that minority groups are facing a greater risk of high mortality from COVID-19.

“Although we are all weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat,” said Helen Barnard, Acting Director of Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Why we need a human rights-based response to the pandemic

A human rights-based response to COVID-19 puts people at the centre and pays particular attention to those who are at risk of being excluded from efficient and timely COVID-19 care – such as migrants, refugees, minorities and indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, older persons, women, children, or people living in extreme poverty. Irregular migrants, for example, often face “obstacles in accessing health care or they may be unable or unwilling to provide information on their health status due to fear or risk of deportation, detention or other penalties as a result of their immigration status,” says the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants.

A human rights-based response to COVID-19 takes a holistic approach that tackles not only the medical dimensions of the virus but also the socio-economic barriers that may render some groups more exposed to the virus.

As the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights and Refugees stated recently in a press release, “The health of every person is linked to the health of the most marginalised members of the community. Preventing the spread of this virus requires outreach to all, and ensuring equitable access to treatment.”

Community Empowerment

One aspect of a human rights-based response to COVID-19 is ensuring strong community empowerment and involvement in finding effective measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Drawing on the lessons learned from the response to HIV over the past three decades, a UNAIDS report stated that, “Just as communities did for HIV, they can lead the response [to COVID-19]…, reach vulnerable populations left behind by health services, identify and address stigma and discrimination, and build a consensus that a public health response can be delivered while respecting human rights and gender equality.”

Fundamental Rights of Equality and Non-Discrimination

A human rights-based response to COVID-19 requires governments and decision-makers to uphold the fundamental human rights’ principles of equality and non-discrimination, the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, and the inalienability and universality of human rights in all response measures. This means, according to UNAIDS, that “governments must refrain from acting in a manner that either directly or indirectly discriminates against individuals or groups, including avoiding unintended consequences of policies and programs and protecting against third party discrimination.”

Above all, policies should aim to leave no one behind and reaffirm the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”


Further Reading:

Le SwissCovid et la protection des données en Suisse by 



CNN, The coronavirus pandemic is hitting black and brown Americans especially hard on all fronts

The Guardian, Black people four times more likely to die from Covid-19, ONS finds

OHCHR, COVID-19 Guidance

OHCHR, COVID-19 Guidance, Migrants

OHCHR, COVID-19 and Human Rights

UNAIDS, Lessons from HIV Prevention for preventing COVID-19 in low and middle-income countries

UNAIDS, Rights in the Time of Covid-19

OHCHR, Universal Declaration of Human Rights




Ojot Miru Ojulu, International Affairs Analyst Ojot Miru Ojulu, International Affairs Analyst

I hold a PhD in Peace Studies with research focus on human rights and over 15 years of hands-on experience on human rights, peace building, development and humanitarian policy and practice at all levels. I have worked and studied in Ethiopia, United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and Switzerland. I am a strong believer in teamwork, collaborations & multi-stakeholder approaches. Together we can make the world a better place for all.

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