Blog: How we’re advancing rights for all during COVID-19

We advocate for communities who are ignored and excluded, or even scapegoated and criminalized. So with the emergence of this new pandemic, we’re not surprised that the most marginalized among us (including prisoners, people who use drugs, sex workers, those without housing, and migrants) are among those experiencing the most harm. COVID-19 is not “the great equalizer.” Instead, just as HIV has travelled along the fault lines of social and economic inequality, this current pandemic also highlights many of the terrible inequities in our world that demand a remedy.

Two things the HIV epidemic has made clear: human rights must be at the centre of our response to this latest public health challenge, and community advocacy and involvement is essential. We’re in a time when rapid responses are needed, but evidence is limited. This means an even greater risk that fear and misinformation will lead to public policies that are bad for both human rights and for public health.

Human rights law recognizes in certain situations some rights may be restricted in the name of public health. But any restrictions must always be necessary and proportionate and serve a legitimate goal. They must always include safeguards against their abusive or illegal application, and be scrutinized and challenged. When taken in response to a public health emergency, they must be limited in time.

We’ve laid all of this out in our #FlattenInequality advocacy brief that highlights some emerging human rights concerns in Canada and makes important recommendations to protect and promote human rights in the COVID-19 response. This brief has been sent to all federal, provincial, and territorial policymakers, as well as to Canadian media.

Here are a few highlights of what the Legal Network has been doing so far in response to COVID-19:


CRIMINALIZATION

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a troubling turn across the globe toward the harsh and unjustified use of criminal and other punitive measures in response to COVID-19.  But we know from the experience with HIV that such measures often ignore science, are wildly overbroad, and result in unfair punishment, with disastrous and discriminatory results for certain communities. As a member of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, we collaborated to create an advocacy statement outlining how criminalization is not an evidence-based response to public health issues.

Here in Canada, there’s been lots of media coverage on this, and we’re pleased to see many people and organizations speaking out against #PolicingthePandemic. We’re working with others in the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization to mobilize community consensus against the misuse of criminal law to deal with COVID-19.

PRISONERS’ RIGHTS

We have grave concern for prisoners and other detainees in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Prisoners come from our communities, and the vast majority will return to them: prison health is most certainly public health.

In March, we sent a letter to federal leaders with specific recommendations to avoid an outbreak in prisons. A few weeks later, both prisoners and correctional officers in multiple federal institutions were being diagnosed with COVID-19, with the number continuing to grow every day. So we sent a follow-up letter stating that the window for prevention was rapidly closing, urging decisive and immediate action, including the release of medically vulnerable prisoners. We continue to monitor the situation in collaboration with partners who are working in federal prisons.

TAKE ACTION: We also mobilized organizations to call on the Ontario government to immediately implement measures to protect the health of all prisoners in provincial custody. You can sign your name (as an individual or on behalf of an organization) in support of prisoner health in Ontario here.

And you may recall that, just last month, we were in court arguing for prisoners’ right to sterile injection equipment. We expect that a decision in this case is imminent. But since then, we’ve learned that federal prison authorities suspended the current prison needle exchange program, citing COVID-19 as their excuse. To be clear, there is no good public health rationale for further denying or delaying access to this health service. This shows how important it is for the courts to declare that a prison needle exchange program is essential healthcare — so that it’s not vulnerable to cynical political decisions.

ENDING DRUG PROHIBITION, PROMOTING HEALTH SERVICES

People who use drugs are facing unique challenges, and governments worldwide need to step up to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. We joined other harm reduction advocates from around the world to call on the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health to provide guidance to governments on how to protect the health of people who use drugs when responding to COVID-19.

Criminalization is a huge underlying factor contributing to the poor health of people who use drugs. So with other drug policy advocates, we’ve also composed a letter to the Government of Canada asking them to use all the tools at their disposal to decriminalize simple drug possession immediately. Our letter will be published in the very near future; keep an eye out on our Twitter and Facebook for updates.

And importantly, we’re amplifying the ongoing need to protect and scale up supervised consumption services where people can use drugs safely, and to facilitate access to a safe supply of drugs that are currently criminalized and contributing the ongoing overdose epidemic. People who use drugs are more vulnerable than ever right now, and we need to act. It’s absurd to maintain ineffective drug prohibition when it’s compounding the harms done by the COVID-19 pandemic.

OTHER MARGINALIZED GROUPS

Sex workers have been calling for Ottawa to create ways that sex workers and migrant workers can receive financial aid to help them survive this pandemic and we fully support this important call-to-action.

Refugee claimants have been abandoned by Canada. We joined Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders Canada to denounce the illegal and unethical closing of the Canada-US border to those in need of our protection.


We’ve pivoted and responded to COVID-19-related issues where it’s clearly important and necessary, but we are also staying on track with our strategic priorities as an organization. Our focus is to ensure a more just world where human rights for all are respected. The violation and denial of human rights has helped fuel the spread of COVID-19, just as it has with HIV. Respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights will be essential to eventually overcoming both pandemics.

Thanks for sticking with us and helping, day by day, to make that world a reality.

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