Human rights in a crisis: a legal analysis

December 2023

Enya O’Connell-Hussey is the communications officer for PREPARED

It is a strange fact of life that the world experienced a global emergency that most of us, less than a few years later, mention only in passing and would rather not dwell upon. Concerns have moved on, for the most part. Already, our collective memories of the pandemic and how we dealt with it are diverging. Life during Covid is now a hazy cloud of empty streets, conspiracy theories, cruel losses, unbearable separations and exhausted health care workers. 

Viruses die without an endless supply of humans lined up to hop from one to the next. The viruses that exploit the behaviours that bring people together have an evolutionary advantage. We are social animals, who need other humans to survive — whether it’s the midwife delivering the baby, a doctor stitching a wound, or a hug from a loved one. Viruses hold human connections for ransom. So when a new virus like Covid-19 emerges, sealing off our basic instincts for human connection is often the only protection we have. Perhaps that is why government-ordered lockdowns were one of the most polarising of the many unimaginable events during the pandemic emergency. Human rights and laws were pitted against one another, weighed up in decisions made within days and weeks, rather than years. In extraordinary times, extraordinary measures were taken. 

Duke Kgomotso, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In our newest report for the PREPARED project, Dr Orla Drummond uses the pandemic as the framework for a comprehensive overview of the legal and human rights issues in emergencies and crises. The report highlights how emergency responses, or lack thereof, damage the right to health, the protection of frontline workers, perpetuate vaccine inequality and worsen the plight of our most marginalised communities. 

As Dr Drummond writes on the pandemic response, “At times of crisis and emergency the suspension of human rights obligations, through the process of derogation, often becomes an option. While certain health responses may require a temporary and proportionate suspension of certain rights, such as the right to liberty and freedom during COVID-19 lockdowns, this report argues that human rights obligations should not be abandoned, reduced or ignored in relation to marginalised communities who are often disproportionately and negatively impacted by crises.” Underlying Dr Drummond’s findings is that regardless of the emergency, nobody is above the law. The core response to a sudden crisis should be built on this principle, as a keystone to protecting human rights and freedom. 

The report is broadly structured and built on several literature searches. It begins with an exploration of the structural and overarching factors for legal and regulatory systems during a sudden crisis and then identifies the key human rights obligations during a crisis, including access to health, right to housing, vaccine access, and the right to information and participation.The review includes an intersectional exploration of how crisis and emergency compounds existing inequalities and human rights violations for marginalised communities.

The numbers of people living in extreme poverty was in decline for a period of three decades until 2020,
when the pandemic caused levels of poverty to rise

As we are publishing this report, the UK is hosting its Covid enquiry to examine the government response to the pandemic and lessons learned. For Dr Drummond, the enquiry only highlights the need for further research into human and legal rights in a crisis situation. 

“Too often the needs of marginalised communities are an afterthought following crisis, and this is evident in the UK Covid Enquiry — too little, too late. Preparation is key. Taking valuable lessons and ensuring that they filter into preparation plans for the next crisis is essential to protecting vulnerable citizens. We must act now to be better prepared when the next crisis hits.”

For many who lost loved ones to the virus, government responses did not go far enough. For others, who lost livelihoods to the havoc of isolation, they went too far. In this crucial window before our memories fade, it has never been more imperative to capture life during the Covid years.

Full report: