We are in unprecedented times. Or maybe not. In a recent piece on medieval plague tracts, TheNew York Review of Books reported that when the plague was ravaging 14th-century Europe a physician described it as inaudita - literally, unheard of.
We have had pandemics before, and we have also seen examples of ill-founded responses to them that endangered rights. When HIV/AIDS emerged in the 1980s, old public health laws in some states prohibited HIV positive people from using public transport or working in food handling. These laws had to be urgently reformed as they were outdated and not evidence-based in relation to actual transmission risks.
None of this is to diminish the enormity of the challenge that COVID-19 poses. Public health and public emergencies are legitimate reasons for limiting human rights. But restrictive legislation still needs to be proportionate: our responses must be transparent, and governments must be accountable for the rapid and extraordinary decisions they make at this time.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially announced that Federal Parliament would be suspended for five months - compare this to five weeks in New Zealand. Thankfully, it has since been announced that Parliament will be recalled, but for a shorter period, in order to pass essential legislation on the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments.
A range of legislative amendments will be passed swiftly in the coming weeks in all jurisdictions. Now, more than ever, fully considered oversight and scrutiny of these laws is an important means of ensuring that reforms, policies and actions meet their intended objectives, that appropriate safeguards are incorporated, and that unforeseen consequences have been mitigated against.
We must ensure these limitations continue to serve legitimate public health goals and be no more excessive than strictly necessary.
Here, good governance and human rights are mutually reinforcing. As the UN Human Rights Council has recognised, transparent, responsible, accountable, open and participatory government, responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people, is the foundation on which good governance rests.
Similarly, as Professor John Shine noted recently, we need transparency about the underlying public health modelling on which ever more stringent measures are being implemented. New Zealand this week released their modelling. Our health authorities appear to have heard this message and have spoken of their intention to release some of that modelling - though how transparent they will be remains to be seen.
Here in the ACT, vigilant respect for the fundamental rights protected in the ACT's Human Rights Act 2004 remains vital. Our human rights framework provides a critical lens over government action, laws and policy to ensure they are targeted, necessary and proportionate. Such frameworks are no less relevant in a crisis. Indeed, they were developed with them in mind, following the genocidal atrocities of World War II.
Measures intended to control and contain COVID-19 inevitably engage human rights - both directly and indirectly. Like the virus itself, both can have disproportionate impacts on marginalised people, including older people, people with a disability, members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and people in institutional care or deprived of liberty.
Equally, for children and young people, there is a direct link between a child's visibility in the community and their safety. We must remain alert to the additional layer of risk that arises when children and young people are stuck at home with their front doors closed.
As governments, businesses, organisations or individuals, we all share a collective responsibility for the holistic protection and fulfilment of our human rights during this challenging time. We are, each of us, uniquely positioned to come together and support one another, especially our most vulnerable, as we learn and adapt to the impacts of COVID-19 together.
The ACT has also seen increasingly tougher restrictions on social interaction and community activities, with limitations placed on gatherings of more than two persons along the lines of legislation introduced in NSW and Victoria. We must ensure these limitations continue to serve legitimate public health goals and be no more excessive than strictly necessary.
A human rights-based approach means that criminalising individuals should only be a measure of last resort in policing and enforcing the new restrictions. Education, support and advice should be the first line of approach.
Measures must also be strictly temporary, non-discriminatory and remain subject to transparent and independent scrutiny.
As Amnesty International recently reminded us, COVID-19 demonstrates how connected we all are, and that "human rights give us a framework for moving forward, together".
- Dr Helen Watchirs is the president of the ACT Human Rights Commission.