Coronavirus pandemic is becoming a human rights crisis, UN warns

United Nations secretary general António Guterres  at a press briefing in New York in February.
United Nations secretary general António Guterres at a press briefing in New York in February.
Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Report released on authoritarian responses, surveillance, closed borders and other rights abuses

The coronavirus pandemic must not be used as a pretext for authoritarian states to trample over individual human rights or repress the free flow of information, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned on Thursday in a fresh attempt to bring the UN’s influence to bear on the crisis. He said what had started as a public health emergency was rapidly turning into a human rights crisis.

Government responses to the crisis have been regarded as disproportionate in countries including China, India, Hungary, Turkey and South Africa.

Guterres has already called for a global ceasefire, and has warned of a growth in domestic violence as a result of the virus, but the UN collectively has been criticised for failing to have an impact in the crisis.

In his latest intervention, he warned “the virus is having a disproportionate impact on certain communities through the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy handed security responses undermining the health response”.

In its new report on Covid-19 and human rights, the UN highlighted the use of phrases such as “foreigner’s disease” to describe the virus, saying such remarks can lead to discrimination, xenophobia, racism and attacks.

Releasing the report, Guterres called for any states of emergency to be proportionate and time limited, with a specific focus and duration.

Freedom of movement needed to be curtailed, he accepted, but he said the scale of such restrictions can be reduced by effective testing and targeted quarantine measures. He reported more than 131 countries have closed their borders, with only 30 allowing exemptions for asylum seekers.

Thousands, the UN said in its briefing paper, “have been pushed back or deported to dangerous environments since the crisis began. Refugees, IDPs [internally displaced persons] and migrants live in overcrowded conditions with unlimited access to sanitation and healthcare”.