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Why human rights should guide responses to coronavirus pandemic

guest column :Sandra Liebenberg THE coronavirus pandemic has killed over a million people globally and disrupted healthcare and political systems, economies, social bonds and religious practices. What can South Africa’s Bill of Rights and international human rights treaties contribute to coronavirus responses and recovery strategies in the country and globally? My central argument is that human rights provide tools to help States build fairer societies and economies. Such societies will be more resilient to future shocks. A human rights-based approach to the pandemic is based on values. It prioritises the most disadvantaged and vulnerable and it is holistic. It also highlights international assistance and cooperation. Value-based approach The values of human dignity, equality and freedom lie at the heart of human rights, and are the founding values of South Africa’s constitution. These values require the State and private actors to recognise that every life is equally valuable. Everyone should have the civil and political freedoms — and the economic, social and cultural means — to develop to their full potential. Governments can promote these values by acknowledging people’s agency. People should have meaningful opportunities to participate in response and recovery programmes. For example, a broad range of civil society bodies must get a chance to shape the budgetary decisions underlying economic recovery. The goal of all response measures should be to create an environment in which all can live in dignity without excessive inequalities on grounds of race, gender and socio-economic status. Setting priorities Human rights help governments set priorities in responding to the pandemic. People who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable should be the central focus. The pandemic and lockdowns have had the most severe impact on people living in poverty. In South Africa, that overwhelmingly means black people. Among them are people in overcrowded informal settlements without adequate water or the space to comply with social distance guidelines. Also harshly affected are workers in the informal sector, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Many have not been able to access economic relief. Because traditional gender roles persist, women have had to bear the biggest burden of child care, home schooling and domestic work while trying to keep their jobs. Human rights require States to put the needs of such groups first when it comes to budgets, laws, policies and programmes. Economic reforms and other pandemic responses should be based on a systematic human rights impact assessment. Interdependence and accountability The third contribution of human rights is that they oblige governments to develop a holistic, integrated response to the pandemic. South Africa’s constitution and international human rights law recognise that all human rights — civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental — are interdependent and interrelated. This means the right to life and health must be protected through science-based me

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