IOS On-line Lecture on ‘Human Rights Aspects of Covid-19

An IOS on-line lecture on ‘Human Rights Aspects of Covid-19’ was organised by the Institute of Objective Studies on July 25, 2020 via zoom. Shaikh Nizamuddin, a member of the general assembly of the IOS, introduced the subject by highlighting briefly some aspects of human rights, particularly during the transmission of the pandemic novel Corona virus. Delivering the lecture, Prof. M. Afzal Wani, professor, University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indra Prastha University, Delhi and the vice-chairman, of the Institute, observed that a teacher was supposed to point out ignorance. Referring to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) assertion that the Covid-19 had created a pressing uncertainty, he said that the deadly and invisible pandemic affected about 1.95 crore human beings all over the world with more than 6 lakh people having lost their lives. This had really created a pressing uncertainty. Defining human rights, he explained that these were the rights without which people could not live. Nobody had made them but everyone recognised human rights. Only an authoritarian regime might violate these rights. Magna Carta, he said, was the first written document that guaranteed certain rights to the citizens of England as early as the thirteenth century. Then came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This was presaged by the Charter of Human Rights in 1945. Advancement and protection of human rights led to the recognition 23 rights as basic rights of human beings. This document was founded on several pacts, agreements, covenants, etc; that took care of senior citizens, transgenders and ordinary people. These rights called for making the life of people worth living. There was a commitment to protect human rights at the national and international level. He said that human rights enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights found echo in the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. 

Prof. Wani pointed out that the conventions, and covenants signed were aimed at protecting those who were under privileged. But the question now was if the needful was done to meet the exigencies created by Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of lockdown in the wake of the pandemic millions of workers employed by companies in the organised sector were laid off leading to sharp decline in industrial production. Several companies were shut down due to lack of work force and the non-availability of raw material. The loss caused by this natural phenomenon would require decades to make up. Raising the moot question of health care during the period, he said the curve of Pandemic-19 should have been flattened and health services ramped up. He held that there were no health-care centres and the endeavours for health were lop sided. During this difficult period, equitable means of sustenance should have been created. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also spoke of several kinds of people and the facilities to be provided to them and added that those must be equivalent to their dignity. Their economic development should have been ensured, but a mess had been made more grave with the increase in people’s miseries day after day. This also reflected poorly on our education and health care system. He said that Covid-19 was used as a cover-up to hide failures. And this was not confined to one nation alone; it was an international phenomenon. Nobody was seen there to provide succor to the suffering humanity. Citing an instance of the failure of the official machinery, he said that one student committed suicide because he could not succeed in getting a smart phone for attending on-line classes. He said that it was the duty of the government to provide smart phones to such students who could not afford to purchase one. 

Prof. Wani questioned why the licences for medicines were not given in the times of health emergency and in the face of the shortage of personal protective equipment and rising prices of life-saving drugs. Here came the responsibility of the state to uphold the dignity and health of the people as the state was an agency to keep the officers working for the betterment of the people. The state must evolve a mechanism that could meet the challenges thrown by natural disasters adding that the state existed for protecting the dignity of people. This was so because the state itself belonged to the people. People must be allowed to have a say in the affairs of the state and must not be subjugated. Allah says He made the children of Adam honourable. Thus the state was duty-bound to work towards the protection of human dignity. He pointed out that the extent to which human dignity was maintained had not yet been a subject of discussion. Presently, cluster studies were made when human beings suffered. That was the reason why no information was available about the conditions of living of jail inmates during the days of Covid-19. He suggested that the content of the study of social activities should be reshaped. 

Referring to the horrors of Covid-19 he said that even the dead bodies were not given proper and dignified burial. This raised the question how to mitigate sufferings when no proper testing and medication was in place. While pleading for fair system of government business and treatment, he said that human rights must be given the prime position. People, who were speaking out in pain, should be allowed to do so. Today our youth was angry because of the lack of a fair system to ventilate their grievances. So was the case with our judiciary as a litigant required a life time to get justice due to the delay in the justice delivery. People were often fearful of moving the court on account of the time involved in pursuing the case. He stressed the need for making drastic changes in the study of law. For effective observance of human rights, officials from a BDO level up to the chief secretary should be fair and respond to people’s voices. 

He also felt the need for a human rights movement at the international level to create awareness about the maintenance of a healthy citizenry. He said that unless we were dignity-conscious, we would not get respect. Similarly, if one was not respectful to human dignity, Covid-19 would not go and other epidemics would break out. Calling for the promotion and development of good health system, he said that help and succour should be provided to the poor all over the world. Commenting on education, he noted that from the primary up to the university level, it must not be detached from human rights. He also favoured rejection of policies that ran counter to human rights. While laying emphasis on the building of a narrative of the development of human beings at the global and national level. Media too could play an important role in protecting human rights. It could make a positive contribution by being human rights friendly, he added.

Prof. Wani also suggested that institutes of management should see to it that the dignity of human rights was maintained and modules for the purpose be developed. Stressing that Covid-19 be taken as a challenge, he said that feelings of a person were very important. Nobody had a right to treat an individual in an undignified manner. Commenting on a mindset with respect to human rights particularly in the management of hospitals, he said that burial in plastic bags should not have taken place. With regard to on-line education, he observed that greater focus must now be more on teachers and non-teaching staff than earlier.  Both government and private educational institutions should have sufficient staff with more salary and strong infrastructure. Likewise, teachers and research scholars should be treated with dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone is born equal and thus he must have equal rights. Democracy meant sharing not only votes but also everything that was at the command of the state. Right to Education (RTE) had also been recognised as one of the human rights and as such, it was incumbent on the state to arrange smartphones for students who were unable to purchase them. 

It was not difficult for the government to provide smart phones because it cost only about Rs 1500 each. He also emphasised that more work should be done on gender discrimination. The question of gender discrimination must be raised in courts, parliament and other appropriate forums. Besides, SC/ST Act must be effectively implemented. He observed that legal aid network was in place but it was not being properly made use of. Legal aid and should be provided free of cost and all-out efforts be made to ensure that weaker sections benefitted from it. Media could play a significant role in preventing excesses on the under-privileged and weaker sections. This should be done in national interest. He demanded that all discriminatory actions should be withdrawn. He said that the Prophet (PBUH) was the champion of human rights. He made the declaration at Arafat on the occasion of Hajjat-Alwida. He warned that if human rights were not honoured, it would create a situation where barbarism would rule the roost. 

During the Covid-19, people were expecting directions from the apex court. Thus the Supreme Court should take note of the worries of the people and pass necessary directions to the government in order to lesson their sufferings. Academics and writers should rise to the occasion and point out errors in the system. The government must ensure protection of jobs, earnings and money belonging to people, he concluded.

Presiding over the webinar, the Secretary General, IOS, Prof. Z M Khan, observed that the Institute was concerned with everything connected with people. He described Covid-19 as havoc and said that it was a matter of concern. The pandemic taught us a few lessons that needed to be remembered while tackling such epidemics which spread across continents. This put administration and the governing system to test which did not happen in normal times. Health and transport system created awareness among the people about the services. Secondly, during this period there was a surge in internationalism. This also gave the right wing ideology an opportunity to spread its tentacles. Thirdly, people started reading about their rights. With production units ceasing their operations due to lockdown, the workers employed therein realised that the system was not that which they latched on to. And lastly, he said, the new generation got itself involved in a big way in various activities. Their participation in providing relief to millions of people had inculcated a sense of responsibility among them. He reiterated IOS’ commitment to everything that concerned the welfare of society.

The webinar ended with a vote of thanks by Shaikh Nizamuddin who also thanked Prof. Wani for his thoughtful lecture. In all, about 120 social activists, academics, research scholars and university teachers attended the webinar. 


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