By Alice Jeon
A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.
Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017. The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.
In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.
Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.
Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.
At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.