Human rights in the time of COVID‑19

April 9th, 2020 by Karly Wilson

On April 2, 2020, the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy directive for government bodies to enact a “human‑rights based approach” to managing the COVID‑19 pandemic.

What is the Ontario Human Rights Commission?

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (the OHRC) is a government agency that was created by the Human Rights Code to promote and advance human rights in Ontario. They provide information and direction for service providers, government agencies, lawyers, and the like. At Iler Campbell, we frequently refer our clients to their public education materials and often use their website as a starting point when researching issues for our clients.

Part of OHRC’s role is to make recommendations during situations of tension or conflict, an apt description for daily life since the start of the global COVID‑19 pandemic. All levels of government have been scrambling to make the necessary policy shifts to keep residents as safe as possible. The provincial government has enacted a series of urgent emergency measures, many of which we have discussed previously on this blog. As decisions are being made at a break‑neck pace, the OHRC has issued its policy directive to ensure that already vulnerable groups are not forgotten, further marginalized, or exploited by government decisions.

What does the policy directive call for?

The OHRC calls for “actions consistent with a human‑rights based approach to managing the COVID‑19 pandemic.” The directive states that vulnerable groups will be disproportionately affected by the outbreak, and therefore the government needs to consciously frame the policies surrounding COVID‑19 with vulnerable groups in mind. The OHRC identifies six principles for a human‑rights based approach:

  1. Approach preventing and treating COVID‑19 as a human rights obligation
  2. Respect the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (Indigenous) peoples
  3. Set strict limits on measures that infringe rights
  4. Protect vulnerable groups
  5. Respond to racism, ageism, ableism and other forms of discrimination
  6. Strengthen human rights accountability and oversight.

The OHRC expands on these principles to suggest actions that would be consistent with a human‑rights based approach, including drastic steps like implementing a universal basic income during the pandemic and for a period of time afterwards. The list of actions is intimidating but many of these directives should already be part of government policy (for example, providing health care services without stigma or discrimination and making sure Indigenous communities have immediate access to clean water).

And…how are we doing so far?

For some, it’s easy to sit back right now and praise the efforts of the government to protect Ontarians (and Canadians). When faced with a challenge as frightening and overwhelming as a global pandemic, it is tempting to allow public officials to take the lead and assume they are keeping themselves apprised of all concerns, including human rights, while making emergency on‑the‑spot decisions.

In reality, the results are mixed. With each emergency decision, new human rights considerations tend to pop up. When social‑distancing orders were issued in mid‑March, the Children’s Aid Society issued a blanket policy cancelling all supervised in‑person access for parents as a protective measure and closed their Toronto offices, leaving many parents across the province without a chance to speak to their children. COVID cases began appearing in shelters and respite centres across Toronto, highlighting the danger of self‑isolating directives for those experiencing homelessness. Increased policing has given rise to concerns of discriminatory police practices. Social distancing orders have increased instances of domestic violence.

But some of the OHRC’s actions have been adopted. The province halted eviction proceedings almost immediately except in cases of threats to safety. The City of Toronto has started taking encouraging steps to protect those experiencing homelessness, including leasing hundreds of hotels rooms and rushing to build modular housing projects. The response to protect vulnerable populations has, as the OHRC predicted, been delayed and slower than necessary, but change is slowly coming.

We hope now that the OHRC’s directive has been published, and as we all adjust to this new normal, government leaders begin to  shape and in some cases, reshape, COVID crisis policies that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.  It is also a chance to restructure and reinvigorate social systems that support and protect those in need over the long term.

Filed in: Human Rights