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Balancing healthcare and human rights


This week we published our first video lecture recorded in quarantine, about the impact of the battle against the coronavirus on human rights. Is every person entitled to health and welfare? What can be done to protect the vulnerables in our society? What are the responsibilities of the government, and ourselves during an outbreak like COVID-19? Can our human rights be limited, for the greater good? In the video below, professor Brigit Toebes from Global Health Law Research Center of the University of Groningen points out that the COVID-19 outbreak is both a public health crisis and a human rights crisis (send in your questions to studium@rug.nl or leave a comment on YouTube before 22 April!)

This talk inspired us to further explore the topic of human rights and healthcare law in relation to the coronavirus by pointing out some articles on the subject.

First of all, the department of Global Health Law at the University of Groningen collected articles on healthcare law and human rights, written by members of the department. Some of the topics they address are the balance between healthcare and freedom, lawmaking and the right to health. For example, should the obligation to secure the "highest attainable standard of health" weigh heavier than one individual's right of choice? And is the coronavirus outbreak regulated adequately by the International Health Regulations of the WHO? Are the current measures taken by countries proportional, and will they be in the long end? And how does a country like China deal with civil rights in relation to COVID-19?

How human rights are being protected differs from country to country. In The Guardian, columnist Afua Hirsch mentions that in the Western world, our human rights are protected quite well and were designed for crises like this. Even if we temporarily have to give up some of our rights, they are still protected and "the continuing shutdown caused by coronavirus doesn't make human rights less relevant, it makes them more important than ever." But it needs to be said that the establishment of human rights depend on trust in the government, and the future will tell if that trust is still in place...

Besides the current measures, such as keeping social distance and working from home, governments are taking steps to slowly lift the lockdown in their countries. Some of them are also likely to infringe some of our rights, for example the right to privacy. In a press conference, minister Hugo de Jonge announced the use of two apps in the battle against the coronavirus. Is an app on your mobile phone to trace people who are tested positive and their contacts a solution? A group of researchers in the Netherlands (among them Rineke Verbrugge from the University of Groningen) signed a letter to the cabinet to express their concerns about this 'exit strategy': how much of your privacy are you willing to give away? Should the app be compulsory? Will it be effective if it's being used on a voluntary basis?

So we see that governments are preparing for the next step in this crisis. What will the world look like in a few months? In the Ted Talk 'Our new 'normal' - learning to live with the coronavirus', Leana Wen, professor of public health at George Washington University is being interviewed about this topic. Will we keep taking social distancing measures? How can we unlock a lockdown? She explains why we need to sacrifice so much right now, and how we can be better prepared for a next outbreak. The measures taken, she says, are our best bet right now, as long as there is no vaccine. And that means that we have to sacrifice some of our individual rights for the protection of society as a whole.

The video talk Is Healthcare a Human Right? was recorded by Brigit Toebes, Professor of Health Law in a Global Context. She is a scholar with more than twenty years of experience in the international standards protecting health, with a strong emphasis on human rights and health prevention and has an important role in the discussion about 'global health law' as an emerging branch of public international law. 

Do you want to learn more about healthcare law and COVID-19? On 5 June, she will be a guest speaker in the online lecture 'For the Greater Good', hosted by Studium Generale Utrecht. The Global Health Law Groningen Research Centre will also host a summer school in 2021, Human Rights and Global Health Challenges​​​​​​​. 


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Ody Sibon & Marian Verkerk
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