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Op-Ed in the Toronto Star: Canada must put human rights at the centre of its COVID-19 response

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April 2, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, it has the potential to touch all 7.8 billion of us. Most of us have not lived through another crisis so permeable to the boundaries of nationality, race, creed and social class. COVID-19 has already taken tens of thousands of innocent lives around the world and, in the process, exposed our common hopes and fears.

People around the world are self-isolating and physical distancing. Communities are working across boundaries to care for each other in ways that were unimaginable a few weeks ago. Brave essential services workers are holding the line. And we have stepped up as caregivers, neighbours, and, quite frankly, human beings.

The human rights movement was born in a similar moment. After collectively experiencing the atrocities of war, people came together to say “never again.” Never again would hatred, discrimination and inequality triumph over our common humanity. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was the war’s silver-lining.

But memories and good intentions fade. In the decades since 1948, human rights have been undermined and attacked by rogue states, multinational corporations and powerful dictators. Despite technological advances that connect us like never before, xenophobia and greed divide us and fuel hatred and violence.

And while our immediate focus is on taking appropriate precautions and caring for those who are directly affected, today I feel hopeful. I can’t think of another time in my life that families, neighbours, communities and countries have put aside ideology to work together to face a common threat.

“Never again” was a message sent by our forbearers to heed in times of hardship; a clarion call to remember the most vulnerable people in our society. Now, once again glimpsing the interconnectedness of humanity, will we recommit to freedom, equality and justice for all? And will we do so, not in the aftermath of this crisis, but in the very face of it?

This pandemic has starkly revealed how vulnerable groups in our society do not benefit equally from public health guidance because of the precariousness of their employment or housing, their limited access to water or Internet, or because they are in state care. The sad reality is that in Canada many vulnerable communities were living in crisis before the pandemic and can no longer cope.

Without a deliberate and long-term commitment to human rights, COVID-19 and future pandemics will further exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and inequalities in our society. We can expect that this pandemic will have a particularly devastating impact on Indigenous peoples and racialized communities, precarious workers, people experiencing poverty and homelessness, women and children fleeing domestic violence, people with disabilities, mental health needs and addictions, older people living alone or in institutions, and people living in custody.

With the release of its Policy statement on a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) calls on governments to put human rights at the centre their short- and longer-term management of COVID-19. This means adopting policies grounded in international human rights law, including the rights to health, life, liberty and equality. It requires taking concrete action, now and after the pandemic, to permanently address the historical and ongoing inequality of the most vulnerable groups in our society. And it requires strong human rights accountability and oversight.

There is a transformative power in our momentary solidarity. Canada and Ontario’s COVID-19 response has already included social policies aimed at keeping people housed, reducing income inequality, guaranteeing safe jobs, helping caregivers, and releasing non-violent prisoners back into the community. This is an impressive start and so much more progressive change is possible.

Through its response to this pandemic Canada has a unique opportunity to say “never again” to the social and economic inequality that has made some of us more vulnerable to this deadly illness than others. By upholding the full range of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and Indigenous rights, Canada can send a strong message to the world: human rights are a beacon of light in times of darkness and uncertainty. Our actions during these unprecedented times may very well be our legacy. Let future generations remember that we put human rights at the centre of our COVID-19 response.

Renu Mandhane
Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission