Reflecting on COVID-19 and Human Rights

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.

Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017.  The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.

In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.

Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.

Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.

At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.



Wise Words of Advice

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

When I was told to “keep an open mind” and “be flexible” during the internship orientation sessions, I did not think that I would have to be prepared for a pandemic. I also did not expect to start in one internship for the first few weeks of the summer, only for the arrangement to fall through, and to be switched to a new organization midway. I suppose everyone’s narrative of the spring and summer of 2020 follows a similar trajectory, experiencing the unprecedented and confronting the once unimaginable. But oh boy, was I unprepared.

Amidst all the chaos, I am so lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity to intern with the HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto. I had a late start and only just finished a month at the organization, but I have already learned an incredible amount.

One of the projects I have been working on is advocacy to stop Toronto police from attending overdose scenes, unless they are specifically called for security reasons. Research from the HIV/AIDS Legal Network shows that their presence and surveillance causes a chilling effect, making people reluctant to call in dangerous overdose situations. In theory, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act is supposed to provide immunity from prosecution for offenses related to simple drug possession to anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose or to anyone on the scene when emergency services arrive. But of course, if police show up on their doorsteps anyways, take down bystanders’ names and dig for information, these good Samaritans inevitably become reluctant to call. In Vancouver, the police force has explicitly recognized this chilling effect and have published guidelines that say that police should not interfere, to the extent possible in overdose situations. It seems time that the Toronto police follow suit.

Furthermore, another project I have been working on is research for an ongoing court case that aims to repeal the antiquated sodomy laws in Jamaica. Jamaica’s constitution has a saving’s law clause, which essentially “saves” Jamaica’s colonial-era anti-sodomy laws. However, there was recently a ground-breaking case in Guyana, McEwan and others v Attorney General of Guyana, that rendered a judgement on four different ways in which the savings law clause could be construed liberally. I have been looking at ways in which this McEwan case could potentially be applied in the Jamaican context, and ultimately help in repealing this antiquated law.

This summer has been out of the ordinary. I have spent more time cooped up in my room than ever, quite different from where I thought I would be pre-pandemic (spending three months in Windhoek, Namibia). It has also been frustrating not to be able to meet any of my amazing co-workers in person, from a personal and professional perspective—it would definitely be so much easier to slip in a quick question to my supervisors they were in the vicinity. But I am continuing to practice gratitude for everything that I have, and continue to remind myself that when it comes to situations that I cannot control, how I engage with it is a matter of my own mindset. “Keep an open mind,” “be flexible”; these words of advice became important in more ways than one.

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