[Statement] Together, let us put hope in the hearts of each other while not forsaking our principles on human rights and social justice -BALAY

Together, let us put hope in the hearts of each other while not forsaking our principles on human rights and social justice

As we enter the second wave of the enhanced community quarantine and the national health emergency it is understandable that many of us are already reeling from the impact of our protective distancing, work from home, or self-isolation. It would be not uncommon for fear and anxieties to arise due to the sudden disruption of the life that we are used to. As the health and life-threatening contagion persists and continues to take its toll on human lives, many of us could be driven to react in a manner that could project our own fears and existential insecurity. Times like this can either bring out the best or the worse in us.

The so-called social distancing that we are told to practice is borne out of compelling reasons of personal and public health and safety. It would be helpful to be reminded, however, that ‘social distancing’ does not mean social division or fragmentation. Neither does it mean discriminating others or wishing them ill. Social distancing as a protective measure should be seen as an exercise of malasakit – ayaw natin na magkasakit ang kapwa natin, at ayaw din natin na tayo ay mapahamak. This is a reciprocal display of kindness, humility, and compassion. This is respect in action – a core tenet of human rights.

From a public health perspective, the restriction of movement is an astringent but necessary measure to prevent or slow down the spread of the contagion and its ill-effects to human lives and society. By doing so, our seriously challenged but valiant health care system would stand a chance to gradually cope with the immensity of the crisis, at the same time buying time for the unprepared authorities to progressively set up an effective response to serve the best interest of the public (especially those in the ‘existential periphery’), and for the scientific community to achieve a breakthrough in treatment and prevention.

We have to acknowledge that it is the primary obligation of the government to introduce measures to impede the spread of COVID-19. Mandated authorities have the responsibility to undertake a range of additional actions to reduce the potentially negative impact such measures may have on people’s lives. As we encourage and support measures to promote public health and safety, the following human rights standards could be used as our guidepost:

1. Any measure taken to protect the population that limits people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. The state of emergency needs to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups. Such group includes those on low incomes, poor urban communities, and those in isolated rural populations. Attention and care must also be extended to the homeless and persons living in the streets, people with underlying health conditions, people with disabilities and older people living alone or in institutions. Children at risk and children in conflict with the law must be protected from violence (such as torture and ill-treatment), abuse, and discrimination as well.

2. The emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should be based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in the application; and of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review. The so-called lockdown and special authority should also not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health; it should not be used simply to quash dissent.

3. During the quarantines or lockdowns period, the concerned state agencies and governing authorities are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and caregiving support. Ensuring continuity of these services and operations means that public agencies, community organizations, health care providers, and other essential service providers are able to continue performing essential functions to meet the needs of older people and people with disabilities. They require support from governments in terms of transportation, protective gear, and other assistance to lower their risk of exposure and of being overworked.

4. People who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus. Authorities need to be ready to respond in a range of ways to unintended consequences of their actions aimed at the coronavirus. Workers who are forced to stay or work from home, and those with no means to fend for themselves, have to be supported through subsidies, social security assistance, advance payment of wages or early release of 13 month pay, as may be practicable. Businesses have the moral and legal obligation to do their share to protect those who bring profits to them.

5. Persons found to be in violation of the quarantine policy should be treated in a lawful manner but with due humanitarian considerations. The health emergency declaration is not the same as martial law. The principle of civilian supremacy, rule of law and due process, and accountability of government authorities remain in place. The writ of habeas corpus is not suspended either.

6. The right to health provides that health facilities, goods, and services should be: available in sufficient quantity, accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, even marginalized groups including for people deprived of liberty; acceptable, meaning respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate; and scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality.

7. Authorities that operate prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers should publicly disclose their plans of action to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, prison staff, and visitors, if cases of the virus or exposure to it are present. Persons in any form of detention have the same right to health as the non-incarcerated population and are entitled to the same standards of prevention and treatment. The detained population and the general population have a compelling interest to know in advance what plans authorities have put in place for handling COVID-19.

8. Governments should ensure that the information they provide to the public regarding COVID-19 is accurate, timely, and consistent with human rights principles. In addition, there should be harmonized information from the mandated government agencies. This is important for addressing false and misleading information and to prevent panic and confusion of public.

Obviously, it could be a difficult balancing act for the authorities when hard decisions need to be taken. However efforts to combat the virus won’t work unless it is approached holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.

9. To engage and ask the national government agencies particularly the Inter Agency Task Force on COVID 19 Response and the local government units to harness the participation of the civil society ie NGOs and people’s organizations in supporting government efforts to manage this large-scale disaster. Based on experience, civil society provide context and are familiar with the culture and norms of a locality. They provide additional knowledge and support relevant in these trying times when frontliners and resources are starting to becoming dearth.

10. We enjoin our fellow civil society organizations to be vigilant, to express concern on how dissent is responded to arising from confusion due to the crisis. We request them to check, monitor and evaluate human rights principles during these times.

11. We are facing a new normal and we thank the international funding partners for the technical and financial support they continue to provide throughout this period. We ask them to extend further empathy, understanding and consideration as part of solidarity.

12. We urge the Balay community – its general members, board of directors and staff to stay strong, together, with our partner-beneficiaries and partner-stakeholders.

At these trying times, we, Balay Rehabilitation Center, as member of the civil society – are being invited to build bridges of understanding and solidarity, and not to sow interpersonal intrigues or social division. The virus transcends ideology and partisan politics. We must do the same, with the core values and concept of human rights and kapwa-tao as our guiding principles. Contributing ideas and providing practical support based on a human rights discourse should be a shared standpoint of the government, civil society, and the private sector. It should not intend to undermine affirmative actions to bring the contagions under control, rather it should help in public education, foster principled humanitarian solidarity, and help facilitate the implementation of measures undertaken by government that protect, promote, and fulfil the right to health and safety, survival, and fundamental freedoms.

We may be physically distant to one another, but we can still cross the socio-spatial landscape by communicating and reaching out to each other – to our families, to our friends, to our partners, and to the larger human community. The situation urges us to convey our concern, provide helpful factual information, offer a listening heart, contribute to the shaping and implementation of sound public policy, and inspire each other and offer practical support, if we can.

Together, let us put hope in the hearts of each other while not losing sight of what’s ahead, not forgetting our values, and not forsaking our principles on human rights and social justice. Let us join hands in this struggle to fight COVID-19.

14 April 2020

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