The dangers of policy overreactions during the Coronavirus pandemic

International crises like the Covid-19 pandemic can lead to harmful precedents.

Within only a few days, governments shut borders and businesses, ordered citizens to stay indoors, stopped accepting asylum requests, banned demonstrations and gatherings, and even – like in South Africa – banned the sale of alcohol and tabaco.

Governments around the world went to great length to halt the spread of Coronavirus. Their polices were implemented often by speeding up or circumventing democratic procedures, and have far-reaching impacts on the rights and freedoms of people.

While international crises like the Covid19 pandemic require a quick and bold reaction in the immediate aftermath of the emergency, they also entail the risk of setting dangerous precedents. If the measures taken to limit the spread of the disease are disproportionate or remain in place longer than necessary, they lead to long-term harmful practices that are difficult to end.

Warnings of the UN during Covid19 pandemic

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the public health emergency could become a human rights crisis. Limits on the movement of people or the use of technology to enforce emergency measures, like in parts of Canada, entail a risk of abuse. “What is justified during an emergency now may become normalized once the crisis has passed,” the UN said in a policy brief in April.

Most of the measures have been taken unilaterally and with little coordination. But the fastest, least harmful, most effective, and least costly way to reverse them is international cooperation. The reopening of borders requires coordination; reversing limitations on the freedom of movement requires testing, which often means sourcing scarce material from abroad.

Lessons from counter-terrorism for Covid19 response

International instruments provide a solution to coordinate, and to balance the need for tough policies and the protection of human rights. The response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 can offer some insights into the role of multilateral institutions in such a process.

As a consequence of the attacks, countries began to implement far-reaching measures like torture and other forms of punishment, indefinite detention, large-scale surveillance, and aggressive searches and other invasions of privacy. Activists shed light on human rights violations and helped raise awareness for the issue.

In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which was followed by several resolutions to ensure that counter-terrorism measures are in line with human rights law. The resolutions have become more extensive over time and are now considered a “mini-charter” on human rights protection when countering terrorism.

States also decided to create institutions such as the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), which coordinate different entities and provide technical support to States. Organizations like the African Union, the European Union, the Arab League, and the Organization of American States developed regional approaches.

Covid19 policy response: include aspects from health to human rights

Awareness of the unintended and long-term consequences as well as international cooperation contributed to a regulation of the far-reaching measures taken after 9/11. They helped to balance human rights and counter-terrorism measures.

Similar procedures and institutions are necessary to coordinate the response to the Covid19 outbreak and its consequences. Several countries have already presented suggestions for a reinforcement of the global health regime. Australia, for example, proposed to expand the powers of the World Health Organization (WHO) and deploy investigators, similar to weapon inspectors during disarmament programs.

While a strengthening of the W.H.O. is necessary, health will be only one aspect of a new regime that needs to harmonize diverse issues from health to human rights, from security to sanctions, and from trade to transport. Institutions and procedures must be put in place and mandated to address all aspects of the causes, the handling, and the consequences of a pandemic.

Global leadership from middle powers during Covid19 pandemic necessary

The lack of coordination between the different issue areas became apparent during the Covid19 pandemic. Security interests, through the enforcement of sanctions, for example, created obstacles in battling the pandemic. In countries like Syria, Venezuela, and Iran, economic crises were exacerbated by sanctions during the health crises and threatened to lead to a hunger crises. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Iran limited the government’s ability to finance and import goods necessary to fight Covid19, such as medicines and medical equipment.

After 9/11 the international community was quick to decide on and coordinate the imposition of sanctions. A reverse process is necessary for pandemics: international coordination is necessary to lift sanctions if necessary to ensure they do not hamper the containment of a pandemic.

While the efforts to coordinate the international response to terrorism was led by the U.S., a country or group of countries to assume leadership on the global response to the pandemic is yet to emerge. Middle powers like Canada, a global champion of multilateralism and human rights, would be fit to raise these issues in international fora, such as the G7. They would be well-placed to initiate and lead the international effort to build a framework for a post-Covid19 world.