Peacebuilders Blog

Human Rights in the Age of Coronavirus

By Marilyn McGinnis | April 14, 2020

At Peacebuilders Camp, we are proud to be training the next generation of social justice advocates. Our campers learn to use a lens of human rights to examine issues of injustice and inequality. Every camp session begins with an introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the United Nations, which lists about 30 rights that the world has agreed are inherent for every person. Campers explore a different right from the UDHR each day of camp and relate those rights to social issues that they are concerned about. We believe that a solid understanding of human rights provides an excellent foundation for activism in ordinary times. Even more now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to the basics of human rights helps to clarify the questions we need to be asking, and helps point us in the right direction to find answers.

More than anything, a human rights perspective reminds us that, pandemic or no pandemic, we’re all in this together. The UDHR starts out with the foundational assertion that “(a)ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and ends with the reminder that“(e)veryone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” In a time when we’re being sorted into “essential” and “nonessential” categories, the UDHR would have us remember that dignity does not stem from the job we perform but is our birthright, and that no one is expendable in the work of community. The ICU nurse and her elderly patient, the delivery driver and his privileged customer, the prison guard and the incarcerated person at her mercy all have an inherent right to be treated with dignity and all have something worthwhile to contribute to the common good.

A comprehensive understanding of human rights also helps us expand our focus out to a bigger social justice landscape even while we each concentrate on the microcosm of problems that is ours to address. Teachers are pulling out all the stops to support their homebound students’ right to education, but they know that their work will be undone if families’ right to a home is not honored. The pandemic is reminding us once again that for most of us in the U.S., our right to food largely hinges on immigrant workers’ right to seek a better life for themselves outside their countries of birth. And of course medical workers are more aware than ever of the connection between their patients’ right to healthcare and their own right to safe working conditions.      

While many of the rights listed in the UDHR address basic necessities of life, social order, and structural justice, elements that bring beauty and meaning to human existence are not neglected. Embracing our rights to culture and the arts during this time of social distancing supports our overall mental health and honors contributions that artists and entertainers are making toward our collective wellbeing. In addition, artists exercising their right to freedom of expression are able to get important messages across in powerful ways, for example, in pushing back against virus-related racism.

Finally, the UDHR confronts us in this time of national crisis with our responsibility to people outside our borders. Every person, not just those from developed nations, have a right to share in the benefits of scientific advancement, and yet access to modern healthcare technology is woefully absent in many parts of the world. Every person has the right to a social and international order that promotes access to all these other rights, yet the current international order rechannels vital resources from poorer countries to richer ones. How would a global pandemic look different if we understood and took seriously all these “universal” human rights?

Recognizing and committing ourselves to making the words of the UDHR a reality will go a very long way to preventing and containing the next pandemic, as well as the legion of social problems that are with us in ordinary times. Where the UDHR is not so helpful, though, is in those places where rights come into conflict with one another. In a time of pandemic, my right to freedom of movement bumps up against my neighbor’s right to security of person. Beachgoers enjoying their right to leisure literally threaten strangers’ right to life by potentially carrying the coronavirus across the countrySome church attenders insist that their right to worship supersedes government orders to shelter in place. Groups exercising their right to assemble are protesting against social distancing orders. And because we all have the right to freedom of conscience, it’s inevitable that we’ll come up with many different answers to questions about what risks are worth taking, how limited resources should be allocated, what rights should be suspended in a time of social crisis and for how long, and where the power for making these decisions should lie. 

So, while a human rights perspective provides a powerful framework for thinking about social justice issues, it’s not a complete roadmap to guide us toward a just society, which is why there is a second, equally important pillar of our programming at Peacebuilders Camp. As we instill a deep appreciation for human rights, we are at the same time nurturing an enthusiastic respect for diversity. Youth from vastly different walks of life share their realities and their perspectives with one another, and practice listening and understanding across lines of difference. They become equipped to respectfully consider opinions, practices, values, and positions other than their own. They learn that bringing a variety of experiences to the problem-solving table creates better outcomes. And when conflicts arise, they are able to work toward solutions that are rooted in respect and that uphold the dignity of each person involved.

COVID-19 will not dominate our lives or our news cycle forever. It will take its toll and teach us its lessons, and then it will move on, to make way for the next crisis. Our Peacebuilders campers will move on, too, into lives and careers that we can only guess. But we are assured that with a solid foundation in human rights and an appreciation of diverse perspectives, they will be equipped to wrestle with the hard decisions, to ask complex questions, and to compassionately steer their communities toward more just answers.

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