Rights and responsibilities in the time of Covid-19

Rights and responsibilities in the time of Covid-19

November 18, 2021

This was first published in Stuff on Nov 18 2021.

By Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt

Our collective efforts have helped to prevent high rates of death and serious illness from Covid-19. We have protected our communities and our health system from the worst impacts of the pandemic. For this, the government - and millions of us - deserve credit. These extraordinary efforts are aligned with a human rights approach based on the rights to life, healthcare, and health protection.

Human rights are not only about refraining from doing bad things, like being discriminatory, arresting journalists, or closing places of worship. They also require positive measures, such as building courts, schools, and hospitals, and rolling out vaccination programmes. The government has human rights responsibilities, and we all have responsibilities to each other. 

These are some of the elements of a human rights approach that has to be applied to Covid-19. 

In a free, democratic society, balances have to be struck between human rights. We do this all the time, for example, the right to privacy has to be balanced with the right to information. In the world of Covid-19, the rights to life, healthcare, and health protection have to be balanced with other rights, such as the right to work and freedom of assembly.

Balances have to be reasonable, equitable, proportionate, lawful, evidence-based, and subject to review. They must centre on people and honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Last month, the Government signaled it is re-assessing its human rights balancing act. The Covid-19 Protection Framework (“the traffic light system”) will see vaccines, vaccination certificates and other public health measures, like masking, become central to preventing the spread of Covid-19. The virus is in the community. More people will get Covid-19 and unvaccinated people are more likely to become very sick and require hospital treatment. 

At the Human Rights Commission, our role is to do what we can to ensure fair balances are struck. It is vital that the inequalities of the past aren’t embedded in the policy decisions of the future. It is the Government's responsibility to be a true Tiriti partner.

Ministry of Health vaccination rates show that 91% of the eligible population have received their first dose and 82% their second dose. Drilling into vaccination rates by ethnicity, however, show that just 78% of Māori have received their first dose and 62% their second dose. 

In August Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā (National Māori Pandemic Group) called out the Government for not meeting the vaccination expectations of Māori and Pacific Peoples in their efforts to ensure hauroa protection and equity.

The extended lockdown in Auckland and elsewhere has caused immense hardship with mental distress, job insecurity, and interrupted education. Many businesses have folded.

We all want to get back to living our lives freely and safely, especially as summer approaches. However, “returning to normal” must not mean striking the wrong balances.

Even with 90% of our population vaccinated, cases among the unvaccinated will seriously test our health system which has been neglected for decades. Non-Covid healthcare is already compromised. Many of our health professionals are already exhausted.

As we enter this new and complex phase of the Covid-19 response, it’s our responsibility as the Commission to speak up and ensure we’re advocating for people who aren’t the loudest in the room. That means prioritising the wellbeing of older people, children, Pacific peoples, Māori, disabled people, and other at-risk people, and ensuring restrictions on people’s rights are fair. It also means supporting affected communities to be heard on whether the government is getting the balance right. 

Throughout the pandemic, the Commission has endeavored to provided our communities with advice and guidance, released public reports, and given input to the government on key decisions.

Today, we call for caution, care, and increased transparency as the Government heads towards implementing the Covid-19 Protection Framework. The Government should release Cabinet papers and other key documents about the move to the Covid-19 protection framework and the introduction of vaccination certificates. This will allow us, and others, to review the decision-making processes behind current and upcoming policies and understand how various rights have been balanced. 

When iwi call for specific support there needs to be a clear response from Government and efforts to reach agreement as Tiriti partners.

New Zealanders will not always agree on how the Government is balancing its human rights responsibilities. Freedom of expression and assembly must be respected, but they must be exercised without violence, racism, or discrimination. Advocacy must be responsible, founded on good evidence and reliable knowledge. The country’s social fabric is at stake.

People have human rights and responsibilities. As a society, we have to strike equitable balances. Most important is the right to life. We can repay debt; we cannot bring back lives.