Equity, dignity and respect must remain at the centre of our efforts to flatten the curve.
The Government’s emergency coronavirus legislation is designed to protect those in vulnerable situations and safeguard our future. Such measures have significant implications for all of us, however it is particularly important to consider carefully the specific impacts they may have on groups who are already disadvantaged in other ways. Both public and private-sector organisations must continue to recognise their human rights obligations under the Human Rights Act 1981 (Act) and relevant international human rights standards, and consider the potential disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the vulnerable groups that they employ or serve.
Within our community, there are individuals living in shelters, on the street or at risk of homelessness, adults and children seeking refuge from domestic violence, persons with disabilities and those with health conditions, individuals with mental health issues, older individuals living alone or in care facilities, and individuals in correctional institutions. There are individuals who are disproportionately in low-paying, hourly-wage, benefit-free and otherwise precarious jobs that make them unable to provide care or interrupt work. They are also more likely to have limited access to stable healthy housing, child care, transportation and health insurance. As a society, we must ensure that they are not forgotten or ignored.
Human rights provide a clear and practical framework to help our leaders – within the Government, trade and industry associations, charities and businesses – determine what are reasonable restrictions and what are not, ensuring they can navigate the delicate balance between protecting public health and safety (including the need to address evidence-based risks associated with COVID-19) and safeguarding our vital freedoms, human rights and individual needs.
Protections that complement or enhance our hard-won rights will maximise consent and compliance, and ultimately best safeguard public health. Changes of such magnitude should be proportionate and measured, and rooted in science and the law. They must have clear review and end points, be flexible to specific needs, and remain fully open to transparent challenge.
Discrimination and COVID-19
Just as we must protect those who are disproportionately impacted, we must also be vigilant and continue to call out discrimination and intolerance in times of stress and uncertainty. Discrimination is prohibited and unlawful when it involves a protected characteristic under the Act, in the disposal of premises (inclusive of housing), the provision of goods, facilities and services and employment.
The publication or display of written discriminatory language with the intent to incite or promote ill will or hostility against any section of the public distinguished by colour, disability, ethnic or national origins, family status, marital status, place of origin, race, or religion or beliefs or political opinions, sex or sexual orientation is unlawful. Similarly, the use of words which are threatening, abusive or insulting or words likely to incite or promote ill will or hostility against that section on grounds of colour, disability, ethnic or national origins, family status, marital status, place of origin, race, or religion or beliefs or political opinions, sex or sexual orientation in any public place or at any public meeting is also unlawful.
Communication with the Office of the Human Rights Commission
During this challenging time in Bermuda, the Office of the Human Rights Commission (Commission) is finding new and different ways to collaborate, communicate and continue to do our important work. As residents of the island seek up-to-date information on the local response to COVID-19, the Commission will be issuing regular statements to media outlets (and via our independent website) to ensure that the community remains vigilant and aware of human rights considerations.
The Commission stands ready to provide guidance and work with the Government, industry associations, businesses and individuals in accordance with our statutory mandate. The exercise of powers by Government officials under the emergency coronavirus legislation needs to be in alignment with human rights principles and the Commission will be undertaking an independent review of the legislation from this perspective in the coming weeks.
Lastly, flexibility and compromise will be essential in responding effectively to this crisis, and there are few easy answers. For many people, the restrictions to everyday life will be hugely disruptive, but ultimately manageable. For others, though, the implications could be profound. At the Commission, we believe that it is possible to protect human rights while saving lives and protecting public health and safety. We will continue to receive and process discrimination and harassment complaints. We will continue to serve the residents of Bermuda and advocate for a society where everyone is valued and respected.
To contact the Commission, call 295-5859 or email at email@example.com.