The Economy v. Health and Human Rights in COVID-19: A Misleading Choice


Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Trustee, Maui

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. In a rapidly evolving situation, states are trying—with different levels of commitment and effectiveness—to curb the progress of the disease. While the virus is a threat to the rights to life and health, the human rights impact of the crisis goes well beyond medical and public health concerns. The health crisis itself, and a number of state measures to contain it, mainly isolation and quarantine, are leading the world into an economic recession. The consequences of the decisions taken by governments to address health and economic issues reciprocally affect one another.

When health is at stake, there is a need to ensure that normal operations do not erode health policies to control the spread of the disease and the associated risk of a collapse of public health systems. The lack of effective response from some governments to protect people’s health through proven measures, such as social distancing and quarantines to flatten the curve, in favor of avoiding an economic slowdown due to the pandemic, is concerning. The economy cannot stand in first position, especially since it allows for most people to have no personal safety net. Life and human rights must be at the center of concern.

The “economy first” approach should not mean leaving people on their own to cope with the pandemic. This economy-centric approach is accompanied by a lack of enthusiasm to reduce inequalities. Such a view of the economy cannot operate as a winner, especially as the broad economy must allow most people to have their economic and social rights realized.

Implementing robust public health policies that save lives and prevent health systems from collapsing should be complemented by policies to make it possible for economic systems to produce and deliver goods and services to fulfil basic human rights while minimizing the long- term negative economic effects of the pandemic. Not putting public health at the center of governmental action plans does not save the economy.

I fear the recession will leave some with no choice but to rely on debt to meet their basic needs and rights. Without immediate relief, it is likely people forced into debt will face increasing debts. While household debt is not a human rights violation, it becomes particularly problematic when individuals resort to formal and informal lending networks to access their rights to healthcare, housing, food, water and sanitation, or education. What might be a lifebuoy today, becomes an ever-increasing economic burden.

Economy versus human rights is misleading because they can be aligned. States must protect lives and economies so goods and services can continue throughout the pandemic and, when it has passed, there are jobs for people. This must be done responsibly with public health and human rights impacts as the primary consideration. There are a number of measures that can contribute towards achieving those goals. These include: expanding social safety nets and considering universal basic incomes; suspending mortgage repayments and evictions; halting cuts in public or private provision of services such as electricity and water; stipulations with respect to medicines and other related technologies; suspending private debt-servicing for individuals unable to cope with the public health crisis and who are without income; and establishing universal health coverage. It is gratifying to see our government consider and implement many of these rights-based responses to the pandemic, thus protecting our people and economy.