By Dr Patricia Achan Okiria
The Government of Uganda announced a 14- day lockdown of the country as part of the measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the national directive, as citizens continue to follow, with increasing apprehension, the spread of the COVID-19 in Uganda and the response of the State to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions on movement has generated considerable anxiety and uncertainty for many Ugandans. The UHRC supports and embraces the measures and have made efforts to ensure continuity as far as possible. Our commitment is driven by the long term goal of ensuring the advancement of the protection of human rights through complaints handling, awareness creation, education and research on human rights issues in the Country.
According to the 1995 Constitution particularly Article 22 on the protection of the right to life in light of the danger that the spread of coronavirus poses to the health, safety and lives of the people of Uganda and thereby threatening the rights to life, health and safety. The transmission of COVID-19 therefore has graver risk to the health and life of vulnerable sections of society including, among others, old people, persons with disabilities, and people with weak immunity due to underlying health conditions.
The obligation that States Parties to the African Charter assumed under Article 1 of the Charter is to take appropriate measures to give effect to the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined in the Charter including through taking measures necessary for preventing threats to the life, safety and health of people.
It is imperative to commend the Government of Uganda as a State Party to the African Charter for putting in place a well thought out public health emergency plan and introducing measures for preventing and containing the spread of the virus and for ensuring compliance with such measures amidst its economic challenges. We greatly applaud the decisive and consistent implementation of the measures adopted by the Government and the widespread compliance by the public to the measures adopted by Government to contain the spread of the pandemic.
When we underscore the unique feature of the Constitution enshrining the duties of individuals towards family, society, the State and other legally recognized communities, and further reflecting on Article 20 of the Constitution, that the rights and freedoms of the individual and groups enshrined in the Constitution shall be respected, upheld and promoted by all organs and agencies of Government and by all persons.
In the light of challenges that have emerged in responding to COVID-19 and the need for the State to effectively discharge its human rights obligations under the Constitution, the Government should be applauded for its compliance to the following human rights requirements:
- The principle of legality- This principle requires that the measures that State adopts for public interest purposes will have the effect of putting restrictions on human rights of members of society have to be based on duly enacted law of general application. Such a law can be an existing law adopted by parliament to manage situations of public health or other emergency or a new law adopted specifically to deal with the specific emergency situation.
On the basis of Public Health Act and the rules and regulations, the Government of Uganda has had clear and evidence-based plan from the Ministry of Health as a basis for introducing measures for the prevention and containment of COVID19 along with effective implementation framework for consistent and predictable application and enforcement of the measures. The measures for prevention and containment have continuously been declared to the public by H.E the President and published.
- Non-discrimination and equality- This principle requires that the State ensures that the measures adopted to fight COVID19 do not lead to discrimination and stigmatization of any one on the basis of any grounds of discrimination listed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The Government of Uganda has ensured that people affected by the virus and people coming from countries with major spread of the virus are treated with dignity and humanely and that they are not subject to attacks and discriminatory treatment. The people have been under quarantine in hotels and hostels and some have already been cleared to join their families.
- Access to information- In times of public health emergencies, members of the public have the right to receive factual, regular, intelligible and science-based information on the threat COVID19 poses to their health, the role and impact of the measures adopted for preventing and containing the virus, the precautionary measures that members of the public should take, and on the scale of the spread.
H.E the President and Public officials from the Ministry of Health have kept the Nation on alert and have communicated such information both in words and action to promote compliance with the measures by members of the public and should inform the public on the implications of non-compliance for controlling the spread. Information has been made available in all major languages and with particular attention to ensuring access to such information by vulnerable groups including the poor with limited access to mainstream media and sources of information, and persons with disabilities. GOU has been able to fulfil her obligations by putting measures in place to dispel misinformation and myths about COVID19 and to penalize the dissemination of false information on risks of COVID19 and preventive measures.
- Primacy of timely preventive and containment measures and ensuring decisive implementation of such measures. Uganda has prioritized the adoption and strict implementation of preventive and containment measures.
The Ministry of Health has come up with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which include social/physical distancing, hand washing, avoiding social gatherings and physical contacts, testing and quarantine and stringent control or closure of ports of entry into the country. The GOU has ensured that, as part of the right to health, access to preventive cleaning products and protective materials at affordable prices and with free provision for those having no capacity to pay and no access to clean water and sanitation has been granted.
- Protection of vulnerable groups- the experience of countries with major spread of the virus shows that COVID19 puts certain category of people notably older persons and others with weak immunity due to underlying health conditions, at greater risk of severe sickness and even loss of their lives. The GOU has adopted special measures to cater for this category of people to ensure that their exposure to contracting the virus is limited including by educating members of their family, care facilities and neighbors, on insulating such group of people from physical proximity from people active in social and economic life of the public. Similarly, the Government has also design and implemented their preventive and containment measures in a way that ensures that as well as people living in poverty, homeless people, internally displaced persons and refugees also benefit from the prevention and containment measures including through the provision of food, hand washing facilities, sanitizers, and disinfection and deep cleaning places of shelter.
- The right to health- Apart from the prevention and containment measures, the GOU amidst minimum resources has tried in its capacity to facilitate access to treatment and care to people infected by the virus including by requiring private health institutions and social actors with facilities to organize their facilities for ensuring such access. Such facilitation of access to treatment and care has been provided to all on the basis of equity in the geographic distribution of such services.
The Government has ensured that health workers are provided with the necessary protective gears to ensure that they are protected from exposure to infection. The Government through the Ministry of Health has put in place the necessary preparatory work backed by a strategy for mobilization of the required financial, logistical and human resources for revamping and reorienting the health systems for providing access to treatment and care and building temporary quarantine and treatment infrastructure.
- Solidarity and duty of individuals, private sector, community leaders, media and religious institutions- Various sectors of society from individuals to political leaders, private sector and other social actors, community leaders, media, public opinion leaders and religious institutions bear special responsibilities of varying degrees for implementation of the prevention and containment measures. Political leaders bear the most responsibility not only to take appropriate decisions and on a timely basis but also to lead by example through strict compliance with the social distancing and other prevention measures. The private sector carries a responsibility proportional to its socio-economic power and influence to contribute to the measures for prevention and containment including through the contribution of resources. Community leaders, the media and opinion leaders also have special responsibility for shaping government action, promoting the prevention and containment measures, provide relevant information and analysis to the public and should be encouraged to mobilize the public to heed the scientific advice and requirements of the prevention and containment measures. The duty of religious institutions involves leading their followers by adopting measures that comply with preventive measures such as banning of large gatherings and by facilitating alternative ways through which their followers can continue to practice their right to freedom of religion.
- Monitoring, investigation and corrective measures- The Government has set up effective and efficient systems to monitor the measures adopted and to take corrective measures and undertake investigation in cases of allegations of violations of human rights of its citizens.
As a Human Rights institution whose core mission is the protection of human rights, the Uganda Human Rights Commission is very much alive to the human rights aspects of the COVID-19 and the state response thereto. For example, with the increase in the number of cases to 52 as at 6th April 2020 we recognize the heightened threats to the right to life and health both in the short term response, but also the longer term implications for health systems and services in Uganda. We also note the opportunity this pandemic presents to better understand what reasonable limitation of rights such as the right to freedom of movement entail, particularly in the face of a potentially debilitating health pandemic caused by COVID-19. It is also a moment that helps us reflect on the measures put in place by government to provide safety for the citizens particularly the vulnerable persons despite of limited resources to respond to exceptional situations.
The writer is a Commission Member of the Uganda Human Rights Commission