What does the pandemic mean for human rights?

Hungary's parliament has given Prime Minister Viktor Orban, above, the power to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly to help contain the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo credit: Elekes Andor/Wikimedia Commons)
Hungary's parliament has given Prime Minister Viktor Orban, above, the power to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly to help contain the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo credit: Elekes Andor/Wikimedia Commons)

Across the world, governments are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with widespread lockdowns to prevent the spread of the disease. While these restrictions have clear public-health benefits, human rights advocates fear the pandemic may erode privacy protections, and enable repressive regimes to consolidate power.

Sweden: Plenty of freedom, but what’s the risk?

Sweden, one of the world’s most developed nations, has made headlines for adopting voluntary, rather than compulsory, measures to curb the spread of the pandemic.

While other Scandanavian countries have locked down their populations and issued orders restricting movement and closing businesses, Sweden’s government has kept stores and schools open and allowed people to continue gathering at bars, clubs and restaurants.

The Swedish government has faced ongoing criticism for its choices, both from its own doctors and from neighboring nations.

Now, with more than 5,000 people infected across the country, and the death toll approaching 300, the pressure to lock down is increasing.

One columnist for The Financial Times writes that a new turn of phrase has become commonplace among Swedes: “We are heading into the storm.”

Sources: The Guardian, BBC News, The Local Sweden, The Globe & Mail, The Financial Times

Eastern Europe: Back to the bad old days

Serbia, Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European nations have adopted a vastly different approach than Sweden.

They seem to be reverting to restrictive measures and practices that hearken back to the days of Cold War totalitarianism.

These include vast powers of surveillance, even within private homes, and sweeping measures to quell all dissent against policies limiting freedom of movement.

Though such measures are to be expected during events such as the current pandemic, human rights organizations caution that leaders and governments must guarantee that these restrictions are temporary.

Source: Associated Press

Hungary: Orban tightens his grip

Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban has seized absolute power.

The national parliament has granted him the authority to rule by decree for an indefinite period, essentially turning him into a dictator.

This has provoked condemnation from the European parliament, with members stating that the action is “incompatible with EU membership.”

The Hungarian president’s spokesperson disputes the characterization, saying that Orban’s powers are specifically targeted at helping the country contain the outbreak.

Source: The Guardian

Poland and Slovakia: Cellphone tracking and obedience apps

Concerned with the right to privacy, Germany has rejected a proposal to track people through their smartphones so as to facilitate contract-tracing of coronavirus exposures.

However, other European countries are moving quickly to embrace high-tech tracking strategies that are more common in East Asia.

In Slovakia, lawmakers are considering a law that would legalize tracking people’s movements via their smartphones.

Poland, meanwhile, has adopted a new, if somewhat dysfunctional, “home quarantine” app that requires people returning from abroad to upload a selfie that proves they are, in fact, at home.

Source: Reuters

About those human rights of yours

According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, some restrictions on some rights are permissible when a crisis threatens the health of a nation.

These restrictions “can be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.”

Yet the organization has also outlined a wide range of human-rights “concerns” that have emerged as the pandemic sweeps the globe.

These include protecting freedom of expression, preventing discrimination, protecting women and girls, promoting the right to clean water and sanitation, protecting health workers, and preserving civil-society institutions.

Source: Human Rights Watch

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