Updated: Sep 17, 2020
On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic and this was a phenomenon that the world has never experienced before. The normal order of life was suspended – movements were curbed, congregations were prohibited and anything remotely ‘social’ was put to a halt. But these were not the only things people were facing for the first time. Countries came up with their own models of governance to contain the viral outbreak and reduce the spread of infection. Although some countries have initiated their best efforts, some have rushed through with rash decisions, which have made it worse for its citizens and in the due process of the implementation of these decisions, there have been instances where mistakes have been swept under the carpet. Amidst these trying times, the people who bear the brunt are the frontline workers who have to work relentlessly in the most challenging of situations only to get their basic rights curbed.
Freedom of Speech and Expression as a Basic Human Right
Freedom of speech perhaps is the most essential human right when it comes to the social and political liberty of an individual. The existence of the said right determines the overall political well-being and extent of human liberty in a nation and henceforth, is a precursor that ensures the execution of the other rights that humans possess by nature and by virtue of them being in a democratic society. Right from the moment of inception, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included the right to freedom of opinion and expression as a basic human right, it has been safeguarded in almost all of the relevant international human rights treaties.[i] Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ensures the right to freedom of opinion and expression of a person. It also espouses the freedom to hold opinions without any interference, and receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of any frontiers.” In the age of the internet, access to information has gained a tremendous pace, as its dissemination has become easier than before. The Internet has provided with social media platforms where citizens can actively raise their voice and exercise their right to expression. However, at the same time, it has been subjected to numerous restrictive policies by both the State machinery and other non-State actors. In India, the freedom of speech and expression is provided to its citizens under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, while being subjected to reasonable restrictions in certain situations.[ii] It portrays the active inculcation of the liberty of thought and expression as envisaged in the Preamble.
The current COVID-19 pandemic saw the restriction of many fundamental and human rights like the basic human right to freedom of movement, right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of trade, to name a few. In an unprecedented time like this, human rights are often overlooked. Some might consider this as the only natural since we have a bigger issue – a pandemic at hand. The governments of many countries have put reasonable restrictions in light of the situation, but there are others who have used this as an opportunity to impose unconstitutional measures, sometimes for their own covert interests.
Stifling Of Voices During The Pandemic
In Kosovo, President Hashim Thaci intended to invoke a decree allowing him to declare a state of emergency. This, according to Prime Minister Albin Kurti was unconstitutional since the Constitution of Kosovo only allows it to be tabled in front of their Parliament after consultation with the Prime Minister, a procedure which the President had bypassed. Moreover, the country had only 19 cases of COVID-19 at that point. Later, Kosovo was again in the news for violating the Constitution for putting unconstitutional restrictions on the freedom of movement. What people fail to understand is that human rights cannot be traded for nor can it be compromised in any situation, as its absence corrupts the very essence of the society and paves the way for dissatisfaction and social unrest. Freedom of speech, likewise, is another right which is tremendously compromised. Beginning from China, which is also the epicentre of the pandemic, many governments around the world have tried to suppress the voices of their people, especially the frontline workers in the wake of the pandemic. The Chinese authorities had made Dr. Li Wenliang repudiate his statement about the spread of a ‘new’ disease based on strange pneumonia cases in Wuhan, which deprived millions of people of the essential information, thereby violating their right to information. Had they had not suppressed his voice, dubbing him as a whistleblower, the odds of overcoming the pandemic might have been different than what it is now. In Russia, the head of a Doctor’s Union who criticized the Government’s response to the pandemic and downplaying the figures was detained while she went to oversee the preparedness of the provincial hospitals. Doctors were faced with resistance for decrying the shortages of protective gears, lack of preparedness on the part of the Government, and allegations on ‘trying to spread false information’.
The Situation In India
In India too, there have been numerous instances where the fundamental rights of the workers were infringed upon, which came into light during the pandemic. In the month of April, the Indian Government brought in an ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 in order to penalize those found guilty of attacks on doctors and medical workers. The Central Government brought in this ordinance as a response to the various incidents of attacks on doctors and health care workers in early April. The Central Government, along with the State and Union Territory governments have invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act as one of the primary legislation along with the Disaster Management Act to combat the pandemic. In such a perilous situation, it is the duty of every state to protect the basic fundamental rights of frontline workers and address their grievances and needs in due time. There have been numerous circumstances where the basic fundamental rights of the frontline workers have been stifled with, denying them their right to free expression of their concerns and grievances in relation to the pandemic. The steps taken up by the Central Government in the form of the ordinances was held as necessary steps to assure the doctors and medical personnel that the government has taken serious cognizance of the reports of attacks on them. Nonetheless, the ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, to an extent bestowed the government with draconian powers without any reasonable accountability during the pandemic, and this should be inspected with the utmost concern for its prospective misuse against political rivals or civil rights activists.
A doctor in West Bengal faced a backlash from state authorities for speaking about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPEs) made available to doctors and medical workers. Subsequently, the Calcutta High Court ruled that the person could not be arrested, but on a restrictive precondition that he cannot post anything on the topic on social media. The Supreme Court of India later commanded the media to publish official versions of the event in order to curb what the Court called as “fake news”, thereby subtly creating a ground for dismissal of claims coming from the general public.[iii] Not to mention the ordeal regularly faced by doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers from the stigmatizing and condescending attitude from fellow citizens. An advisory, which was issued by the Union Government on 20th of March, addressed the need for awareness campaigns to restrict the spread of false information and initiate quick action against the dissemination of such information. There were numerous reports of abuse and use of vulgar language against female nurses. In a video which went viral in early April, it was seen that female doctors who went to an area to screen suspected persons to have come in contact with a patient were thrown stones at and verbally abused. A police case was lodged when reports showed how female doctors and nurses were harassed by victims who were running naked inside the premises of the hospital and spat on the staff members. In mid-June, the Health Ministry declared that the act of withholding the salaries doctors, nurses and staffs would be dealt with as an offence under the Disaster Management Act. The decision by the Union Government came after a petition was filed by a doctor in the Supreme Court alleging non-payment of dues to medical workers. In the systematic survey carried out in June, it was found that the protective gears of the medical workers did not meet the safety requirements and some were not of the desired quality. Many hospitals even lack adequate access to procurement of PPE for the workers which has proven to be very important resources in the fight against COVID-19.
State machinery and civil societies, have somehow failed their frontline workers time and again by imposing restraints on their professional line of duty and depriving the broader public of their fair access to information. With the question of competency of the current healthcare infrastructure up in the air in the current times, frontline workers ought to be treated with respect and dignity every day of the year, as their efforts have been unparalleled in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the state machinery mounts an offence to combat the virus, initiating trials with vaccines, coming up with new drugs for treatments, our frontline workers must be entrusted with the basic human rights and strengthened with to save lives and also mitigate human suffering.
[i] International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965 ; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 ; the Convention on Rights of Child 1989 ; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006 [ii] INDIA CONST. art. 19, cl. 2 [iii] Nirmalya Chaudhuri, COVID-19: Restricting Health Workers’ Free Speech has a Chilling Effect, HEALTH AND HUMAN RIGHTS JOURNAL (May 4, 2020) https://www.hhrjournal.org/2020/05/covid-19-restricting-health-workers-free-speech-has-a-chilling-effect/
The article has been written by Rinkie Bora and Arunav Bhattacharjya. They are students at National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.