Article authored by Professor Arto Kallioniemi, UNESCO Chair on Values, Dialogue and Human Rights and co-authored by Tuija Kasa, PhD-student researching human rights education; both from the University of Helsinki.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global human rights crisis that has affected everyone. The virus itself threatens everyone’s rights to life and health. To contain the virus governments have taken a number of measures that restrict human rights. In the fight against the coronavirus, everybody should be treated equally and no one should be discriminated against. It must be remembered that the risk posed by the virus is higher for certain groups of people, such as older people and those with certain diseases, and therefore they need special protection. Certain groups in society, such as the homeless, prisoners and the undocumented, are also less able to protect themselves against the virus. Therefore, the authorities must take steps to protect them. Measures to prevent the spread of the virus can have negative effects on certain groups of people, such as women experiencing violence, those struggling with their basic security, and sexual minorities. The corona crisis also makes it more difficult for getting peer support and participate in community events, which can increase the feeling of loneliness and affect mental health.

The means put in place to combat the corona virus are testing democracy and its rights and freedoms. For example, the Emergency Powers Act introduced for the first time in peacetime in Finland concentrates power on the government, which has been widely discussed in society.

The amount of coronavirus patients in Finland has been relatively slow; at the moment (14.4.2020) there were almost 6000 afflicted persons and 276 have died. The epidemic landed in Finland late if we compare it to other European countries.  The government in mid-March in co-operation with the President stated that Finland was in a state of emergency. Therefore, it was decided to activate the Emergency Powers Act that can be used to centralize decision-making and restrict citizens’ fundamental rights. After the Finnish Parliament approved the act, a large number of public places have been closed. Schools and universities have switched to distance and digital learning and gatherings of more than 10 persons have been banned. One region, Uusimaa, where our Capital area is located has been closed for three weeks. Many public places, e.g. libraries, museums and restaurants have been closed. Now in May, the government decided to start re-opening the society.

Debates and Examples in Finland
These Corona circumstances evoke the question about fundamental rights; are they for all? It also raises conflicts and controversies over the interpretation of rights. It is in the state of emergency when human rights and democratic principles are measured. As professor Tuomas Ojanen has stated in Human Rights Centre’s interview, it is easy to respect rights when everything is going well and finance is fine; Worse times are the tests of fundamental and human rights.

Worse times are the tests of fundamental and human rights.

Relating to schools there was wide general debate about opening the schools. Many teachers stated that the right to education is not threatened in an e-learning environment and that they would not be able the secure school environment if schools opened. There was a lot of discussion about children’s rights and what the meaning is of “the best interests of the child” (Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 3). Some stated that closing the schools were good for certain children and many were concerned about unequal home circumstances of children. For example, some children may not have any support for school work at home. Child welfare services were worried and some children and young people were not reached during the school closure. After general reflection, the government decided to open the schools and one reason was that the limiting of fundamental right to education must not be restricted without very serious justification. The results will only be seen in the future.

The Ombudsman for Equality has given information of COVID-19 situation in different languages. This is really important since there has been evidence in Finland and in international context that in some regions people have more virus contagion and one aspect is the lack of knowledge in people’s own language. Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s researcher Michael McEachrane wrote about the segregated communities in Sweden and internationally in Raoul Wallenberg Institutes blog, how COVID-19 disproportionally hits segregated and vulnerable communities.

Some worrying discussions were initiated, for example, by The Threshold Association stating that disability can’t be the reason for denying intensive care. The Threshold Association is cross-disability organization, which focuses on the basic and human rights of persons with disabilities. The initiative originated from the understanding that in some health-care institutions lists were made, as to who would not be sent to intensive care. For example Human Rights Centrehas been informing about COVID-19 and especially in relation to the rights of older persons and persons with disabilities. An Equal right to treatment and care must be secured even in a state of emergency.

“An Equal right to treatment and care must be secured even in a state of emergency.”

When the discussions about data collections from tele-operators started relating to COVID-19, The Chancellor of Justice stated it would be against privacy protection laws. He came to the conclusion that in some cases it would be possible. It is important to have public discussions relating to fundamental and human rights, like privacy, health and movement.

We have had to rethink many things in a new way and develop new approaches to our daily lives. First, although schools and universities are physically closed, the work in schools and universities has continued. Teachers have done an enormous job in shifting contact teaching to e-learning in only two days. Fortunately they have also been thanked by the Minister of Education and widely in public discussions. These times also emphasize the importance of wide understanding of democracy, fundamental and human rights and thus the importance of democracy and human rights education.

Websites and references:
The Ombudsman for Equality: https://www.syrjinta.fi/-/tietoa-koronaviruksesta-eri-kielilla
The Threshold Association (Kynnys ry): https://kynnys.fi/news/vammaisuus-ei-voi-olla-tehohoidon-evaamisen-peruste/
Human Rights Centre’s Covid website: https://www.humanrightscentre.fi/covid-19/older/
Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s blog by Michael McEachrane: COVID-19: Disproportionally Hits Segregated Communities https://rwi.lu.se/2020/05/covid-19-disproportionally-hits-segregated-communities/


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