Striking a balance during the Covid-19 era: A human rights approach

By Simon Parwaringira

CCJP Masvingo Diocese

Covid-19 is arguably the greatest challenge faced by the human race since the Second World War. Globally, the pandemic has had far reaching negative impact on politics, socio-economic livelihoods and well-being of a large section of both the rich and the poor population of the world. In as much as the global North boasts of state of the art health systems, the effects were indiscriminate particularly among the elderly and among those with pre-existing ailments. As cases continue to surge, various governments enacted a raft of measures to contain the spread of the virus, to cushion businesses, and to provide social protection to vulnerable groups affected socially and economically. Some of the measures had very positive effects whilst some had a dire bearing to individuals, institutions and communities. This article takes a human rights approach to discuss the Zimbabwean situation in light of the enacted measures since 2020.  

Human rights were greatly affected because of Covid-19.

Chapter four of the Constitution of Zimbabwe amendment (no.20) 2013 provides Zimbabwean citizens with a plethora of rights. For the benefit of those who are not well versed in the human rights sector, these have often been defined as entitlements or standards that recognize and protect the dignity of all human beings. Human rights govern how individual human beings live in society and with each other, as well as their relationship with the State and the obligations that the State have towards them. Human rights law obliges governments to do some things, and prevents them from doing others. Individuals also have responsibilities: in using their human rights, they must respect the rights of others. No government, group or individual person has the right to do anything that violates another’s rights. Human rights are universal and inalienable. All people everywhere in the world are entitled to them. No one can voluntarily give them up. Nor can others take them away from him or her. Human rights are indivisible. Whether civil, political, economic, social or cultural in nature, they are all inherent to the dignity of every human person. Consequently, they all have equal status as rights. There is no such thing as a ‘small’ right. There is no hierarchy of human rights.

In addition, the realization of one right often depends, wholly or in part, upon the realization of others. For instance, the realization of the right to health may depend on the realization of the right to education or of the right to information. All individuals are equal as human beings and by virtue of the inherent dignity of each human person. All human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, ethnicity, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status as explained by the human rights treaty bodies.

In light of this brief background to human rights, since the first COVID-19 case in Zimbabwe was reported on 21 March 2020 in the resort town of Victoria Falls, various individuals, groups, organizations and communities have a story to tell in as much as their rights were protected, promoted or infringed by the measures enacted. A closer look at the effects of the enacted measures has shown that they have brought to the fore the deep socio-economic and structural challenges bedevilling the country, and it exposed how critical social service delivery systems and structures had been dysfunctional over the past decades. Several years of institutional decay and erosion of social dialogue also exacerbated the effects of COVID 19 on socio-economic rights.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the right to education and social well-being of children. According to a ZIMSTATS PICES report (2020), a majority of children as of July 2020 were not able to engage in online or distance learning and the worst affected were those in rural areas where only one quarter of children engaged in distance learning. This has the risk of widening the emerging and growing inequalities in education. Closure of schools during lockdown took away the protective sanctuary for children offered by schools, leaving them exposed to sexual exploitation and abuse, including drug abuse, and there was reportedly an increase in child marriages during the lockdown.

The impact of COVID-19 on the health delivery system, which was already underfunded and dilapidated, undermined the right to health for many people. Public health facilities faced several challenges which affected their capacity to provide basic and emergency healthcare during the pandemic, for example, the lack of equipment, limited intensive care unit beds and ventilators, lack of PPE, staff shortages, poor remuneration and working conditions for frontline health workers, among many other challenges. During the initial stages of the pandemic, some health facilities were closed after COVID-19 infections were reported, such that several people failed to access critical health services such as maternity services for pregnant women, immunization for children, access to life-saving support in case of emergencies, and access to medication by chronic patients suffering from HIV/AIDS or Tuberculosis.

 COVID-19 affected millions of people dependent on the informal economy and contract and casual workers in the formal sectors, with women being the worst affected. The initial closure of informal economy businesses, marketplaces and vending sites deprived them of their sources of livelihoods and incomes. Some of these businesses never recovered up to date. Vendors and small-scale food producers reported disruptions in the supply chains, low sales, high rates of produce leftovers and spoilages (for those selling perishable goods) which threatened profits, and a decline in number of customers visiting vending sites or informal markets. There were high job losses in the retail and other service sectors, as well as reduction or disappearance of wages for most contract and casual workers.

COVID-19 also affected food consumption and food and nutrition security as households lost incomes, while food prices went up due to the inflationary shocks induced by the pandemic. Thus, the right to food and food security was severely undermined. More than half of urban households and two thirds of rural respondents surveyed by ZIMSTAT between March and July 2020 reported that they had to skip meals because of lack of resources to obtain food. COVID-19 disproportionately affected women, as cases of gender-based violence were reported to have increased exponentially from the onset of the lockdown. Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, access to pre and post-natal care, neonatal care, among other healthcare services unique to their needs, was significantly disrupted. Unpaid domestic and care work increased exponentially during the lockdown, as women and girls were confined at home and were expected to take up more responsibilities of maintaining the home and providing care to the rest of the family.

As the Covid 19 vaccination program gathers momentum, we have had several pronouncements from certain government officials highlighting that there is a possibility of making the program mandatory. We have even seen videos of the President announcing that those who would not be vaccinated would not be allowed to board ZUPCO buses or be considered during staff recruitment. Social media has also been awash with messages purportedly from the government announcing that civil servants are not vaccinated will no longer receive the Covid 19 allowance. One wonders if this is not an infringement on people’s rights. Given the widespread fake news circulating on social media pertaining to the effects of the vaccines, is it not rational to prioritize awareness on the pros and cons of the vaccines to counter the associated scepticism and fear.

Conclusively, informed and guided by the Social Teaching of the Church which propagates the value of life and the inherent dignity of the human person, it would be prudent to recommend a number of bold and urgent actions to be taken by the Government, development agencies and Civil Society Organizations to ensure that socio-economic rights are restored, and service delivery and social protection systems are built back better and equitably in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. These include urgently releasing funds earmarked for social protection; strengthening systems and mechanisms for detecting and preventing Gender Based Violence and child abuse; disbursing financial rescue packages to the informal economy; implementing an education rescue plan; expanding food assistance programmes so that they can reach excluded groups; organizing vulnerable and marginalized groups so that they can claim their socio-economic rights by engaging authorities and in some cases through public interest litigation; and monitoring and reporting violations of socio-economic rights during the period of lockdowns and thereafter.

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