Covid measures and human rights: the blindspots

Last night I could not sleep – thousands of thoughts in my head and the feeling of anxiety in my body. Reading the facebook posts these days, I had a feeling as if we were at the brink of a civil war. I have been unsure what to do with the knowing that I live in the system which I no longer resonate with, that I no longer resonate with the perspective of many people with whom I used to share the same values around human rights. So, to clear my thoughts, I decided to write.

To write about the problems of the human rights system which are visible in the discourses around COVID measures and human rights, the problems which I, as a human rights lawyer and academic, have been observing for quite some time.

While the human rights system, with its universalistic discourse of equality, dignity and freedom, can be considered as a part of ‘world-centric’ consciousness – a stage that comes after the ‘ethno-centric’ consciousness (see K. Wilber, The Theory of Everything), pointing to its blind spots, it is still not an integrative system which can really ensure equality, freedom and dignity of all. It actually operates on the dualities based on the righteousness of different groups’ world view; the ‘world centric’ consciousness opposes the old world views, instead of integrating them.

Divisions are still part of the human rights discourse. Hence, while activists for women’s rights can see the problem of women’s inequality, some of them see some aspects of the exercise of the  rights of transexual people as threatening. LGBTI activists can see the problem of the inequality of LGBTI persons (even though there are some misunderstandings among all of the subgroups of L, G, B,  T) but some might not be as attentive to race issues. And the list go on – the more you dig, more divisions are there. Hence no surprise that now on the issue of vaccinations the lines are not clear: right and left is no longer an easy divide, even though most of the media and many of my activist colleagues are painting it as such (irrational, right wing protestors).

In this context, most of human rights activists now do not see any problem with covid passes or other restrictions such as unvaccinated people being confined to home, police using rubber bullets on the protestors – there seems to be a valid justification and a clear clash of rights: there is a harmful virus, which is deadly for some, and hence the need to protect the right to health and the right to life. I get that.

But a few things are forgotten. First, there is no hierarchy of human rights, even in legal terms. Second, there is always some justification for the violation of the human rights. Isn’t the argument for restricting LGBT rights the fear of “spoiling children”, or the argument for not allowing trans women in ‘women only’ spaces the fear for security? I am not saying that these arguments are of the same strength or equally rational, but there are some similarities here: one part of society considers something a big threat (the virus) to which vaccine is an answer, and the other part disagrees (on one or both points).

Third, the (same) principle of proportionality is at play in assessing whether measures violate human rights. The questions are: are restrictions rational, effective and to what extent they affect the core of rights? I can accept that the rational fear of the virus justifies taking action by the government, particularly in a situation where a big part of society demands it (this is we believe that we have to react to fear by defending ourselves, but this is too much to dwell on here). But the question of the effectiveness of the measure is really contested: the evidence shows that vaccinated persons can pass the virus, that the effectiveness of the vaccination lowers after few months and that in the countries with a high vaccination rate (such as Ireland and Iceland) the virus spreads even faster in this last wave. Then why this different treatment on the basis of the vaccination status and why in future the testing will no longer be sufficient since this actually might be more effective measure? What about the principle of non-discrimination, how is it applied here? Law or measure based on discrimination is considered prima faciae arbitrary in international human rights law.

Finally, what are the effects of the measures on the (core of the) rights of those affected? People are faced with a choice of doing something to themselves that they do not want, undermining their autonomy and dignity, and potentially having other consequences on their health and well-being (while the side effects of these vaccines are contested, we do know that there have been some side effects), or losing means of livelihood and living generally as a second-class citizens, the outcasts.

So how come that these principles of human rights are not recognised by the human rights activists? Just on the account that the so called anti-vaccers seem to be “irrational, religious, right wing”? Is this group really so homogenous? In the disperse group of unvaccinated, there are not only “right wing nationalists”, there are also those who believe in the power of their own body-mind-soul system, and for whom this decision is important for their own sense of identity, as are some other decisions (including on the issues of gender, sexuality, reproduction) that have been recognised as worthy of protection in international human rights law. There are those who think that the better approach to health and life is to create conditions for well-being rather than policing the population, creating “passes” for being included in life activities.

But beside that – aren’t human rights universal? Aren’t human rights there to protect against dehumanisation of people who dissent the main narratives (whatever they are)? So is it the fact that there is this time a threat to a wide group of people, not only some “irrational” subgroup like the anti-rights activists, that makes us blind to the human rights issues? Or is it because the virus makes us all fear, faces us with death, our own mortality and fragility, which have been taboo topics in the systems we have created? The system which disconnected us from our own power to go through life and death and to listen to our own authority, our own intuition, while maintaining the structures of opression.

Maybe it is a time for new consciousness, the integral theory of consciousness, as Wilber calls it, the conceptual model of the world that integrates material and spiritual, where all the stages are complimentary rather than in opposition. As a start, maybe we can finally accept that there are many realities and allow them to co-exist, without or despite the fear that this creates for each of us in different ways? The science (which for many is the reason to ridicule those who do not want to take a vaccine) actually confirms that indeed there are many stories. So can be at least allow them to be heard without ridicule, can we at least talk about human rights implications of the measures, even if we come to different conclusions?

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