Why is COVID-19 a right-to-health issue?
The global pandemic COVID-19 is a right-to-health issue because it exposes healthcare systems and individuals to unprecedented pressures and inequalities. Patients and their caregivers have increasing healthcare needs (e.g., medicines, hospitalizations and palliative care). Healthcare systems continue to respond within resource constraints, short timelines – initially, with very little awareness on the disease’s spread, characteristics and management.
Which communities are most affected by anti-coronavirus policies concerning their right to health (information)?
Although COVID-19 has affected communities across all demographics, certain communities listed below experienced more hardships during the pandemic due to their compromised right to health.
These communities include:
- Essential workers (e.g., those working on the front-line such as medical staff or in food processing)
- Migrant workers (e.g., workers who travel between regions/countries for their daily work)
- Displaced communities (e.g., asylum seekers)
- Sex workers
- Individuals and families living in poverty or with mental distress
- Those living in violent, isolated or marginalized conditions
- People with pre-existing serious and chronic healthcare conditions (e.g., not being able to access care in healthcare facilities due to lockdowns)
Some of these individuals (e.g., health workers) have been exposed to people with high viral loads due to the nature of their daily work. Others (e.g., displaced or marginalized communities) may not have access to relevant information on how they can protect themselves and seek support in case of infection and related issues such as starvation, financial losses, etc.
Why are health workers sometimes being targeted by their governments when they speak out on COVID-19?
Governments sometimes target health workers when they speak out on COVID-19 for a number of reasons. In some cases, health workers shed light on inefficient practices by the government that could prevent curbing of existing infections (e.g., poor implementation of disease surveillance mechanisms or failing to stop known gatherings of infected people). Health workers have also been exposed to infected patients, often with limited means of protecting themselves while working in the public healthcare system (e.g., no access to personal protective equipment). It is also important that information on COVID-19 and related care is accurate, timely, reliable and available to all stakeholders within the healthcare system. If there are concerns that health workers may share information that could be misleading, governments could take measures against potential information asymmetries by targeting those responsible for sharing of information.
What are the main concerns now many countries are in the second wave of the epidemic?
The main concern surrounding COVID-19-related vaccines and medicines is that although there is much research on how to treat/manage the disease, there is still a need to carefully test and validate experimental/repurposed products per internationally accepted protocols and standards to understand associated risks to patients. However, care must be taken not to unnecessarily delay access to treatment for those in need.
There are ethical considerations on exposing healthy volunteers to COVID-19 during clinical testing, as it will put them and their caregivers at risk in absence of tried and tested treatments.
Regarding equitable distribution of vaccines and medicines, it is important that all communities and individuals have access to COVID-19 treatment regardless of their socio-economic, cultural and political environments. Healthcare systems need to be equipped with sufficient workforce and resources to aid delivery and distribution of the treatments once available – and ensure patients have adequate information to manage their conditions and prevent future infections.
What do NGOs and international bodies recommend?
WHO recommends that healthcare systems, civil society, governments and individuals work together to reduce discriminatory practices that prevent equitable access to healthcare during COVID-19.
This includes focusing upon vulnerable populations in distribution of essential nutrition, services and care and preventing isolation and fragmentation in communities, which could exacerbate impact on mental health.
Global and national public health bodies should disseminate accurate, reliable and accessible information, advice and guidance on managing symptoms or caring for those infected with COVID-19, or those affected by environments or conditions that increase chances of infection.
Health workers, civil society and governments should be encouraged to advocate for rights-based approaches that aim to increase awareness on the pandemic by building lifestyles that balance risk of acquiring/spreading infection without coercion, forced confinement or lockdowns.
This page was written by Gauri Deoras in oktober 2020.
- UN General Assembly (16 July 2020) : Final report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dainius Pūras
- WHO webpage Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic
- The Lancet – “The right to health must guide responses to COVID-19”
- Living Like People Who Die Slowly: The Need for Right to Health Compliant COVID-19 Responses. Report ICJ (International Commission of Jurists), 2020
- Article “The Evolution of the Right to Health in the Shadow of COVID-19”. Health and Human Rights Journal