Navigating human rights in a pandemic

Residents detained in their homes without food or medication. A woman forced to urinate in a bottle while waiting for hotel quarantine. The covid-19 pandemic has raised a raft of issues about how to balance human rights and public health orders, Victoria’s Ombudsman says.

Deborah Glass

Ombudsman Deborah Glass says covid-19 has highlighted the need for public servants to get the balance right when responding a public health emergency.

She says her office dealt with around 2,700 complaints relating to human rights issues in between 2019-20 amid a surge in complaints sparked by covid-19.

Ms Glass says the pandemic has seen a curtailing of many of the freedoms contained in the Victoria’s Charter of Rights legislation which includes the right to freedom of movement, the right to privacy and the right to peaceful assembly.

Covid-related complaints to her office included not being allowed to travel from home, not being able to enter or leave the state, having to wear masks and bans on public gatherings.

There can be little doubt COVID-19 has forever changed the public’s conception of government, human rights and what is possible in this state. We see limitations on those freedoms that would not long ago have been unimaginable.

Deborah Glass

Broad human rights issues

Ms Glass says it’s not unlawful or unreasonable to limit freedoms in a public health emergency. However some ations, such as the detention of 3,000 public housing residents in their apartments in July 2020, raised broader issues.

This included the right to be treated humanely when deprived of liberty, which did not occur when residents were put into immediate lockdown without ensuring they had enough food or medication, Ms Glass found in a report released last year.

On Wednesday Ms Glass she tabled a case book listing examples of human rights complaints received over the last 12 months, including human rights in a pandemic, in the community and in closed environments.

Denied access to toilet

In one the case study a woman was forced to urinate in a bottle when she was deprived of a toilet for more than five hours while being detained at Melbourne airport as she waited to be assigned to a quarantine hotel.

“During the pandemic, people in quarantine are often being detained by the State,” Ms Glass said.

“While it is important to manage infection risks, people must be treated humanely and with dignity.”

The report also contains case studies of people who lost work and missed medical appointments because they weren’t allowed over the border. In another case a woman in a wheelchair who was sent to the back of the queue at a drive-through testing site after waiting for an hour when she left tp find an accessible toilet.

Findinf the right balance

Ms Glass Victorian says Victoria’s laws recognise human rights aren’t absolute and may be limited in certain circumstances, but the pandemic has highlighted the need to strike an appropriate balance.

“All too often human rights are poorly understood both by the public agencies who are obliged to consider them and by the public they are intended to protect,” Ms Glass said.

“The human rights failures we see are not deliberate – those in authority simply fail to properly consider or balance some of the fundamental principles that underpin our basic freedoms.”

Ms Glass said public authorities should never ignore human rights, even in a pandemic.

Victoria, Queensland and the ACT are the only three jurisdictions in Australia with dedicated human rights laws.

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3 thoughts on “Navigating human rights in a pandemic

  1. Unfortunately we are well down a track where citizen and human rights have well and truly been trampled! And it appears that while public authorities should never ignore human rights, even in a pandemic, it is evident that all common human rights bodies seem to have had no real effect on our Government, public servants or police..

  2. It all comes back to the golden rule “do unto others…” but sadly, no one sees the other as their peer or equal or as someone with inalienable basic rights – people feel emboldened by law and hide behind them forgetting that good law is based on instruction and only punishment when the reasonable restriction is fair and equally applied…

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