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UN rights chief warns against mishandling the lifting of COVID-19 lockdowns

In Caricuao, Venezuela, doctors and nurses go house-to-house raising awareness on COVID-19.
OCHA/Gema Cortes
In Caricuao, Venezuela, doctors and nurses go house-to-house raising awareness on COVID-19.

UN rights chief warns against mishandling the lifting of COVID-19 lockdowns

Human Rights

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner on Thursday warned of potential risks as more countries move to lift lockdown measures put in place to contain COVID-19 spread.

Michelle Bachelet -- a former doctor, health minister and Head of State -- acknowledged the challenge facing governments as they grapple with the medical crisis, while also trying to save their economies from collapsing.

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“Balancing the economic imperatives with the health and human rights imperatives during the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be one of the most delicate, daunting and defining experiences for all leaders and all governments. Their place in history will be decided by how well or how badly they perform over the coming months”. she said, speaking from Geneva to journalists.

“If their response is based on the interests of a particular elite - causing the disease to flare up again in other less privileged or marginalized communities - it will rebound on everyone.”

Danger of COVID-19 second wave

COVID-19 continues to disrupt the lives of billions across the planet, including countless workers and students who are now confined to their homes in efforts to protect lives from the deadly disease.

More than four million cases were recorded globally as of Thursday, and more than 290,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“If an affected country comes out of lock-down too hastily, there is a danger that a second wave, costing many more lives, will be triggered sooner and more destructively than would otherwise be the case,” said Ms. Bachelet.

“If the re-opening of societies is mishandled, all the huge sacrifices made during the initial lock-down will have been for nothing. However, the damage to individuals and to economies, will not just be retained - it will be significantly amplified. “

WHO guidelines paramount

The UN rights chief posited considerations for lifting lockdowns, focused primarily on WHO guidance which stresses that transmission needs to be controlled while healthcare systems must be able to detect, test, isolate and treat every case, and trace contacts.

She pointed to South Korea, New Zealand and Germany as countries that have followed this advice from the outset.

However, she added that “we can also learn lessons” from South Korea and Germany which have seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases since relaxing their lockdown and emergency measures.

Neglect in care homes ‘horrifying’

Ms. Bachelet also underlined the need to address disease risk in vulnerable locations such as care homes, psychiatric institutions, refugee camps and detention centres.

“And are there plans in place to ensure isolation and specialised treatment for all those who may become exposed to COVID-19 in the future? The neglect of elderly people in care homes in some countries during the first wave of the pandemic has been horrifying”, noted the High Commissioner.

Special measures are also needed in high-density residential areas such as slums, and other areas without adequate water, sanitation or healthcare facilities.

Similarly, plans to ease lockdowns should include specific measures for high-risk groups, which include racial and ethnic minorities, migrant workers, people with disabilities, those with existing underlying health conditions, and the elderly.

“Never before has it been so starkly clear that it is important for all of us that no one is left out of social protection schemes. And in some countries such schemes barely exist”, she said, highlighting the need to support poorer nations.

Safer workspaces and public transportation

Turning to the workplace, Ms. Bachelet said authorities will have to ensure employees are protected when they return to their jobs. For example, those whose work involves contact with the public will need to be provided with masks, sanitizers and shielding materials. Additionally, public transport will need to be made as safe as possible.

“When lifting lockdowns, those without stable incomes, those not able to work remotely, and all those in essential jobs - which is not just health workers - will face the highest risks. It is finally starting to be noticed that disproportionate numbers of essential workers are migrants, and that most of them, despite being ‘essential’ are often very poorly paid”, she added.

Moving forward will also mean consulting with citizens in decisions that affect their lives, including how to lift emergency measures.

Participation, she said, builds greater trust in the authorities and better compliance with public health measures.

“As a former politician, I know how difficult it can be for national leaders and ruling parties to take politics out of the equation. But this pandemic will not be contained by politics or ideologies, or by a purely economic focus. It will be contained by careful, sensitive, science-guided policymaking, and by responsible, humane leadership”, said Ms. Bachelet.

“Letting politics or economics drive the response at the expense of health and human rights will cost lives and do even more damage in both the short and long terms. Such approaches are simply not sustainable. And they will not be sustainable in the future either. We will not be able simply to return to the ‘normal’ economy, and other parts of the pre-COVID-19 status quo, when the pandemic is over. That should be the most important lesson learned from this crisis.”