This post is part of a series that explores the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable communities and disadvantaged groups. It also looks at the broader context of rising hate speech, rising authoritarianism, and how governments are undertaking heavy-handed responses and repressive measures to further entrench their power, ultimately undermining the public health response. 

The fragility of human rights makes them an unfortunate and easy target for demagogues, despots, and governments of ill-repute to dismantle. In times of crises, the call for protecting the greater good is answered and achieved by means that may bring more harm than benefits. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping its way throughout the globe, human rights advocates have received a grim reminder on the importance of their task.

In April, the United Nations published a report on human rights and COVID-19. It bore the name “We are all in this together,” as well as the statement “Human rights are critical – for the response and the recovery.” Both are important to keep in mind. Though we are all equally against the coronavirus, we are not all affected by it equally. As the UN report states (and has become apparent in the time since), “The public health crisis is fast becoming an economic and social crisis.”  It should be, and should have been, at the forefront of states’ plans in combating the coronavirus to deploy combative measures with as widespread societal effect as possible. This has not, unfortunately, been the case.

Human rights in their purest forms are, by necessity, malleable to an extent. Lockdowns employed by cities and states throughout the globe were used to restrict people’s right to freedom of movement. Of course, this was necessary considering the extreme circumstances. This pandemic has put this line of thinking to the test.

Of particular note is the actions of the police in enforcing lockdowns. Most targets of such action have been minorities.  Breaching lockdowns and curfews have been used as a basis for police violence. France and the U.K. are two such countries where targets have been from immigrant and minority communities. It has not just been people of color, though. Homeless across Europe, as well as the border-spanning Roma have faced discrimination. The rules of lockdowns are hard for these particular people to adhere to. The police in many European countries have been unwilling to understand this.

The social contract between the citizens of a country and its government has been challenged during this crisis. Ideally, in a democracy, it is a symbiotic relationship (in the form of said contract) that allows a government to represent the people who chose them in their best interest. COVID-19, though, has laid bare the deficiencies present in many countries. In too many places there had been no preparations for anything remotely bordering on COVID-19’s scale. Hospitals were either understaffed, understocked, or both. The United Nations has chosen as a particular spotlight the underinvestment of health systems during the spread of virus. “COVID-19 is showing that universal health coverage must become an imperative.” 

It is, of course, not just what governments failed to do that has people worrying. Attacks on democratic practices and institutions are a grave threat at a time of societal instability such as now. Viktor Orbán of Hungary was given the power to rule by decree on March 30th. One of the infamous populist leaders of Europe, in power since 2010, Orbán has been accused of leading Hungary’s democratic backslide. With an indefinite state of emergency, by-elections having been put on hold, and “deliberate distribution of misleading information,” resulting in jail-time, Hungary is on the edge. One can only hope that this extraordinary measure will see its end on June 20th as promised by Mr Orbán.

A long-term crisis can provide an ample window of opportunity for attempts at more power. Mr Orbán may have been only the first, or the most brazen, quasi-authoritarian leader to push for emergency powers. It does not seem too far-fetched, though, for there to be others. In an age of increased populism, nationalism, and ‘us-vs.-them’ rhetoric the tide of a foreign-born virus may very well lead to minorities to be used as scapegoats. The virus can thus be understood to have put minority populations (especially Asian populations) at an even increased risk: from weakened health/social care, and increased xenophobia.

The economic effects of the virus will be a burden on all, if not in the short-term then in the long. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook for June of 2020 has the global growth projected to be around -4.9%. This has a chance to shrink even more. The effect this will have on developed nations is worrying; on less developed countries it is downright horrid. Efforts to reduce extreme poverty will be setback by years. This is yet another example of how, though the virus itself does not discriminate, it’s effects are certainly lopsided.

Those people beset by economic and societal inequalities need their rights to be guaranteed and protected by governments. Unrest and frustration are likely to rise if not. Governments around the world should have already worked to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. COVID-19 has shown a now-or-never moment for achieving these.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.