The right to health must guide responses to COVID-19

Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay

Judith Bueno de Mesquita, Co-Deputy Director of the Human Rights Centre, and Lecturer in International Human Rights Law, University of Essex, has co-authored a Comment on ‘The right to health must guide responses to COVID-19’with Dr Dainius Puras (UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health), Luisa Cabal, Allan Maleche and Dr Benjamin Mason Meier.

While the impact of COVID-19 responses on human rights has elicited global attention and concern, much analysis has focused on tests of legitimacy for restrictions of civil and political rights, such as freedom of movement, freedom of association and privacy. Despite calls by the UN Secretary-General and the WHO to place the right to health at the centre of COVID-19 responses, this human right has been marginalized by Governments, as well as in many human rights analyses.

The Comment highlights that the human right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, protected in international human rights treaties, provides binding normative guidance for health-care systems, broader social responses, and global solidarity in the COVID-19 response. For example, the obligations on States deriving from the right to health require that States provide testing systems, personal protective equipment for frontline service providers, and health care, both for those suffering from COVID-19, as well as other essential healthcare services. It also requires actions beyond the health sector, to address social determinants of health which may be impacted by COVID 19, including through social distancing policies, which have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Further, it requires States to protect vulnerable and marginalized communities, and to ensure that these communities participate in the design and implementation of COVID-19 responses.

One of the original features of international human rights law is that it supports both domestic and transboundary obligations. Thus, in the context of COVID-19, States must engage in international cooperation to support a coordinated global response, which has relevance across a range of fields such as the development of vaccines, economic sanctions, debt obligations and intellectual property. The right to health, as well as other rights, thus have an important role to play in responding to the call of the UN Secretary General for global solidarity in the COVID-19 response.

The Comment was originally published in 2020 by The Lancet, vol 359, p 1888.

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