COVID-19 and Human Rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary strain on Council of Europe member states. In their effort to protect the right to health and uphold the functioning of their health care systems, they had to impose strict virus containment measures, from full and partial lockdowns to school closures and significant limitations of cultural activities and public life. COVID-19 has thus had dramatic implications for the exercise of human rights in Europe, notably for the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and the rights to education and private and family life.

The Commissioner has stressed that member states must ensure equal access to essential medical treatment, including testing and vaccines, for all, leaving no one behind and paying particular attention to the special needs of persons belonging to vulnerable groups, such as older persons, persons with disabilities, and persons living in crowded or unsanitary conditions. She has also urged governments to alleviate the enormous pressure faced by health and care professionals, the majority of whom are women, and called for transparency and inclusivity in health communication to promote trust and support for necessary government measures in the population.

Restrictive measures intended to protect public health can be temporarily justified under the condition that they are necessary, effective and proportionate. The proportionality of virus containment measures, such as lockdowns or vaccination mandates,  depends on the severity of the human rights restriction in question and the specific context in the country. It should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and ultimately by the courts, whether they are necessary, effective and the least restrictive means to achieve the desired aim of limiting hospitalisations, grave illness, and death.

Pandemic and Human Rights

Back We must respect human rights and stand united against the coronavirus pandemic

We must respect human rights and stand united against the coronavirus pandemic

“Millions of people around the world are living through extremely tough times because of the rapid global spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19. All my thoughts are with the people infected, the families and people close to them and with those who have lost loved ones,” stated today Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The situation in Europe is developing fast and governments are taking a great variety of measures to protect the population. I call on everyone - authorities and citizens - to do their part and uphold solidarity and unity while responding to the urgent challenges and concerns we all share.

European governments are fighting against the spread of the pandemic with strong measures. This is necessary to respond to the unprecedented challenge we are facing. At the same time, it is clear that the enjoyment of human rights is affected by the pandemic and the measures adopted to encounter it. The right to health, the broader range of economic and social rights, and civil and political freedoms, are all very relevant in the present context.

It is therefore crucial that the authorities take measures that do not lead to discrimination and are proportionate to the aims pursued. Access to health care for all population groups based on sound medical evidence is clearly the priority. Positive measures are required to meet the specific needs of the groups at particularly high risk, such as older persons and those who may not fall under health coverage. I also urge member states to do more to mitigate the enormous pressure health professionals are under in responding to the expectations placed on them.

It is essential that governments remain vigilant against racist, xenophobic or stigmatising acts, and provide wide access to unbiased information on the public health situation, availability of services, and the measures undertaken.

Lastly, I urge all member states to ensure that the communication formats adopted reach all people. Some governments have established communication channels via social media platforms, which is a positive effort in that direction. Transparency and accessibility are central for enabling the public’s confidence and participation in the governance of the current circumstances.

COVID-19 poses a serious danger. But with unity, determination to protect human rights and solidarity we will overcome it.”

Strasbourg 16/03/2020
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