Nqobizitha Ndlovu-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association
The 22nd of March 2020 marked the World Water Day annual commemoration with this year’s celebration running under the theme “Water and climate change.” The day was however eclipsed by the worldwide outbreak and spread of a viral disease COVID-19. A pandemic declared as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the 11th of March 2020. Governments were called to take urgent steps to curb the spread of the disease.
Human rights law recognizes two forms of guarantees. One is couched in the negative which is aimed at stopping governments from doing certain acts which infringe upon peoples’ human rights. Then there are positive guarantees which obligate governments to do certain acts which shall result in enjoyment of human rights. This paper provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak, drawing on examples of government’s responses to date.
COVID-19 and international human rights law
Several global and human rights instruments recognize the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to provide medical care to those who need it. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the standard setter. It provides that everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Governments are obligated to take effective steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) mirrors ICESCR provisions.
Since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by WHO, governments have an obligation to take effective steps to prevent, treat and control the spread of the disease. The prevention and control mechanisms may have the effect of limiting peoples’ human rights. Thus, in the interests of public health, some rights such as freedom of movement and assembly, religion and culture may be limited though the limitation must be proportionate and reasonable. For instance, quarantine or self-isolation and the shutting down of borders amounts to a limitation to freedom of movement, assembly, religion and culture.
Government’s response to COVID-19
Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa summed up the government’s response during the state of the nation address on 23 March 2020 where he said the following statement, “We are mobilising resources. This pandemic did not give notice that it was coming”. The President’s declaration that the pandemic did not give notice flies in the face of evidence. The WHO has traced the COVID-19 timeline response as detailed in Figure 1 below while the government’s response timeline is as per Figure 2 below. A comparative analysis of the WHO and government response timelines indicates that the government had notice of the COVID-19 pandemic. The failure to set in place preventive measures and strategies is thus not a lack of notice.
While the government is mobilising resources, an outline of government’s response so far indicates that the measures taken are reactive more than proactive. In human rights parlance, the government’s response consists of negative as opposed to positive measures. For instance, the government has limited citizen’s freedom of movement, assembly and religion by banning public gatherings, closing borders and banning entertainment and recreation activities. But what positive measures has the government taken? For instance, the provision of water, and medical supplies.
Figure 1: WHO response timeline
Figure 2: Zimbabwe’s response timeline
Right of access of clean and potable water: The importance of hand hygiene in the prevention of COVID-19
According to WHO, hand washing is the most important tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) equates clean hands to saving lives. Since the best prevention against the corona virus is hand washing, the critical question is: What measures is the government taking to guarantee access to water?
Access to water is a constitutional right under the Zimbabwean Constitution. Section 77 provides that “Every person has the right to safe, clean and potable water; and the State must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right”. The government has a positive obligation to take measures to guarantee everyone’s access to clean and portable water.
According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project report, over one million people in Harare only have no running water. Lack of key water treatment chemicals in urban areas has resulted in serious water shortages. In the rural areas, over half of the population have no access to clean water, with the task of providing water for households falling disproportionately to women and girls. As noted by the United Nations 2017 survey of 177 countries, an estimated 40 billion hours in a year is spent by women collecting water. It follows that the increased use of water due to COVID-19 prevention regime has the effect of increasing the burden of collecting water by women. This exposes women to infection as they largely collect water in communal boreholes and wells. Thus, while WHO has noted that the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting human health during the COVID-19 outbreak, Zimbabwe’s preparedness strategy has not touched on the availability of this critical resource. Lack of potable water and sanitation at home, school, or in healthcare settings is counterproductive to preventative measures. In some cases, without adequate water and sanitation these settings themselves may be a locus for the spread of the disease.
What positive measures can the government take?
- Government should immediately suspend any water shutoffs for failure to pay. Discontinuing water services for failure to pay in any context is incompatible with human rights and can be particularly harmful in the context of public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Government should immediately suspend water rationing. The preventive regime against COVID-19 requires constant washing of hands. Water rationing militates against good hand hygiene practices.
- Government should immediately provide water bourses to areas with no water. Some areas in urban areas have gone for years with no running water. Water is a scarce and expensive commodity. As a result, to promote the prevention of COVID-19, the government must immediately make water accessible to those communities without water.
- Rehabilitate community boreholes in both the rural and urban areas to improve access to clean water.
- Education remains key in helping Zimbabweans fight the COVID-19 in addition to the already existing initiatives the private sector should compliment the efforts of the government and help in community sensitization and fact sharing on the COVID-19.