Putting people first in the fight against COVID-19

July 16, 2020

The response to the novel coronavirus must be based on a resolve to protect human rights

Photo: shutterstock.com

It has been said the coronavirus does not discriminate – that everyone and anyone can be a host and catalyst for its spread across the planet. While this may be true of the virus, the COVID-19 disease that results from its infection does indeed affect different groups of people differently – but only where society treats different groups of people differently.

Delve into the grim statistics of the pandemic and it becomes painfully obvious that some are more at risk of dying or being severely debilitated than others: The elderly, those with underlying medical conditions, the marginalized, and the poor are all in greater peril than others.

The virus is spreading through human populations everywhere on Earth, exposing existing inequalities between social groups: a lack of quality care for the elderly, the prevalence of health problems among those in poverty, and discrimination against vulnerable groups.

For that reason, our response to the disease must be built on a solid foundation of care for the vulnerable segments of the population, a determination to address inequalities in our societies, and a firm resolve to protect the human rights of all.

When we put people and their rights first and foremost, especially in times of crisis, the outcomes are invariably better, as a few examples from here in Ukraine illustrate.

A special case

Consider the case of Sviatoslav (name changed), who spent more than 10 years in Dariivska penal colony No. 10 in Kherson Oblast, in southern of Ukraine. His prison term came to an end in March 2020, and the 63-year-old man planned to return home.

But there was a problem: Sviatoslav was to be released in Kherson, where he had no friends or family with whom to stay – his only family were located in Russian-annexed Crimea. With quarantine measures in place due to the COVID-19 disease, there was no transport operating to take him to the entry checkpoint to Crimea. Moreover, the checkpoint was closed due to the pandemic. Without a place to stay, and not being in the best of health, prospects looked poor for Sviatoslav.

Then the penal colony administration stepped in to help Sviatoslav get home to his family. They asked Oksana Tropina, the regional coordinator of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights in Kherson Oblast, to help find a solution to Sviatoslav’s problems.

After several days of negotiations, Kherson border officials allowed Sviatoslav to cross the border as an exceptional case, Tropina says. “Tonnes of paperwork” were required to arrange a pension for him, and to issue him a passport and other documents he needed, she adds.

They even found a transport company that agreed to take Sviatoslav home free of charge. After a nervous few hours waiting to see if Sviatoslav would be allowed through the opposite checkpoint into non-government-controlled Crimea, the administration of the colony received a message from Sviatoslav’s children – he was safe at home.

“I know that Sviatoslav spent two weeks in self-isolation at home, and he is doing fine together with his family,” Tropina said.

Protecting rights

In another case, the regional network of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office had to take steps during the pandemic to protect the rights of those who could not protect them themselves – people in care homes and psychiatric hospitals, many of whom are elderly.

Following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ukrainian government established a special one-time social payment for such people of UAH 1,000 to help them during the crisis. Usually, 75 percent of the social payments made to people in care homes and psychiatric hospitals is deducted for the needs of these institutions to pay for the care of their residents. However, special social payments are exempt from this practice.

But when the regional network of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office visited some institutions in Mykolaiv Oblast as part of its regular monitoring, it found that institutions had been allocated 75 percent of the special social payment as well. After this was reported to the Ombudsperson’s Office, it launched thorough checks throughout Ukraine, and found this violation of care home residents’ rights to be widespread.

The Ombudsperson appealed to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine to correct this mistake, and the government went on to issue a regulation guaranteeing that all those who were only paid 25 percent of the special crisis social payment will receive the other 75 percent next month.

Fighting discrimination

The fear caused by the relentless spread of the coronavirus can generate discrimination and hate speech against certain vulnerable groups. During the current pandemic, these groups have included Roma people, internally displaced persons, representatives of the LGBTQI+ community, Ukrainians returning home from other countries, people living in non-government-controlled territories, and the citizens of countries with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

In response, UNDP has continued to support the regional network of Ombudsperson’s Office to help protect the human rights of such vulnerable groups at the local level. In April and May, the network was engaged to train staff to identify and prevent cases of hate speech and to deescalate tensions at local level. The ZMINA Human Rights Centre, with the support of UNDP in Ukraine, developed a course of 10 webinars to teach regional network of the Ombudsperson’s Office about the causes of hate speech, how to identify hate speech in local and social media, and how to address the problem.

The course was designed to provide the regional network with the monitoring tools it needs to identify hate speech, and to respond and prevent it.

The knowledge was immediately put to use: The regional representative and the regional coordinator of the Ombudsperson’s Office in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast  were among the first to react to a discriminatory order by the city mayor to remove members of the Roma community from the vicinity of the city. They were able to address the order on that basis that it would violate the human rights of the Roma.

The regional coordinator’s statement was also supported by the office of the Ukrainian Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights, which stressed that the local authorities should do their best to ensure all people living in the city can peacefully coexist.

As these cases show, the time of COVID-19 should not be used to overlook human rights – on the contrary, it is a time at which we must pay special attention to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable among us. Human solidarity, responsibility, empathy and compassion are as effective against SARS-CoV-2 as practices such as physical distancing and wearing masks in public places.  They protect everyone’s rights to life and health – the most important human rights of all.


UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crisis, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for everyone. During the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease, UNDP, to safeguard human rights, is supporting state institutions by keeping their doors “open” with e-governance, assisting them in managing crisis and uncertainty, developing and implementing emergency policies, regulations and contingency plans, ensuring the continuity of essential services, tackling corruption, and addressing misinformation.

In Ukraine, UNDP with support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark provides support to the regional network of the Ombudsperson’s Office which is the National Human Rights Institution with the aim of strengthening the capacities of the office to contribute to reform agendas, implement its mandates and respond to human rights challenges in Ukraine, while mobilizing national authorities and human rights defenders to improve the overall human rights record of the country.