Human rights and social inequity issues are magnified by COVID-19  

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered a powerful document at present, more than 70 years after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its 3rd session on December 10, 1948, in Paris, France.

Since its creation, it is currently available in 360 languages and it is no surprise that it is the most translated document in the world. It is not an exaggeration to refer to it as an acceptable global tool used to measure right and wrong and fight oppression, discrimination and uphold human dignity in communities.

I refer in particular to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which addresses “the access to medical care, necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of lively hood in circumstances beyond his control.”

In my role as a non-governmental organization (NGO) leader (both nationally and internationally), representing my health NGOs at the United Nations over the past decade and being actively involved in several international health initiatives— including initiatives on the Ebola crisis in Africa—I believe the response globally to the COVID-19 pandemic has failed to address human rights for many people. Shaking the very core of our existence on planet earth, this health crisis has further highlighted the glaring gaps in access to health care and prevalence of social inequalities, which are creating barriers in addressing the crisis.

A specific example is the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), globally in countries for the first responders (i.e., health care providers), essential workers in various settings who are without an exaggeration are in the fight of their lives while helping their fellow citizens. This is, in my opinion, a lack of access as PPE availability is a component of health care access.

As a health care professional, I am sad, angry and puzzled by the apathy shown by policymakers and some elected officials in not heading the genuine and earnest pleas for protection by the first responders while they go about doing their jobs with utmost dedication and serving others before their own health and safety. Isn’t this violation of human rights with specific reference to Article 25 of the document as it compromises their security?

On a similar note, I am dismayed to note that the recent statistics about the mortality rates due to COVID-19 in New York are the highest among African Americans, which highlights the persistent socio-economic inequalities which are raising their ugly heads during the crisis.

It is crucial that stakeholders need to work together and without delay on innovative and effective solutions without social exclusion of vulnerable populations and accelerate the response to address this catastrophe caused by COVID-19 on multiple levels.

A final example of the global human rights failure in the context of COVID-19: maternal mortality in India. Specifically, women who recently gave birth in a public hospital in Hyderabad after the world’s biggest lockdown in India faced several challenges. Some of these include the lack of food and necessary personal supplies needed as the hospital cafeteria was closed, and their relatives were not allowed inside to bring the necessary supplies, and this led to this sorry state of affairs.

Yes, the lockdown measures were enforced, and social distancing enforced to try to reduce the spread of the disease, but unfortunately, there were no mechanisms in place to address the needs of these vulnerable women and their newborn infants.  As a woman, I am dismayed and cannot help wondering if men in hospitals would have faced the same challenges faced by these women? I strongly believe this highlights gender discrimination, which is magnified often challenging to address more so during global emergencies caused by war, disease, or natural calamities.

As a global citizen, I appeal to my fellow citizens that we need to strategize on how to level the playing field for all groups of the population and work to ensure that the human rights of all are not violated.

Padmini Murthy is a professor and global health director, New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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