FRA press release: Protect human rights and public health in fighting COVID-19

Government measures to combat COVID-19 have profound implications for everybody’s fundamental rights, including the right to life and to health, as mapped by a new Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) report. Government responses to stop the virus particularly affect the rights of already vulnerable or at-risk people, such as the elderly, children, people with disabilities, Roma or refugees. Respecting human rights and protecting public health is in everyone’s best interest – they have to go hand-in-hand.

“We clearly need strong public health responses to protect life during the pandemic. But we can protect our health and respect human rights. It is not a zero sum game,” says FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty. “The more we respect human rights, the better will be our public health strategies. These strategies must also ensure that any limitations to people’s fundamental rights should only last as long as necessary and that they protect already vulnerable people who may face even greater risks from COVID-19.”

The FRA report ‘Coronavirus pandemic in the EU: Fundamental Rights Implications’ looks at the measures EU Member States use to address the pandemic to highlight rights-respectful approaches that other Member States can learn from.

It focuses on four issues underlining the need to carefully and regularly assess the impact on people’s fundamental rights as governments react to the ever-developing pandemic:

1.    Daily life: Government responses have had a wide-ranging impact on fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom of movement and of assembly, as well as rights relating to work, health and education.

Social and physical distancing measures – While countries ordered at different times and with varying intensity such measures, they should not lead to social isolation.

2.    Vulnerable groups: some people are more vulnerable than others, for example the elderly and children, people with pre-existing medical conditions, Roma, refugees, homeless people, prisoners, people in institutions.

Greater protection – EU countries should protect but not isolate people in institutional settings, such as nursing homes, prisons or refugee centres. They should develop targeted measures to address the specific needs of other vulnerable groups such as shelters for victims of domestic violence and accessible healthcare information to those who regular messaging may not reach.

3.    Racism: The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks particularly against people of perceived Asian background.

Reporting – EU countries should closely monitor racist and xenophobic incidents and effectively report, investigate and prosecute such crimes.

4.    Disinformation and data protection: Almost all EU countries face disinformation on the pandemic. Many collect data to help curb the spread of the virus.

Ensure data protection – EU countries should stay vigilant and ensure they implement all data protection safeguards when protecting health.

This is the first in a series of three monthly reports on the impact of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across the 27 EU Member States. It looks at the impact of government measures in place in February and March on people’s fundamental rights.

The Estonian Human Rights Centre provides an overview of the situation in Estonian to the FRA. “All measures applied during the crisis must be considered, proportionate and in accordance with human rights,” said Liina Laanpere, the centre’s lawyer. “Public justification of measures and transparency of state activities are also very important,” she added. The Center will keep a close eye on the restrictions of the crisis and their rationale and will continue to analyse them from a human rights perspective.

Read the full report about the situation in Estonia.

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