Coronavirus Outbreak and Government’s Role as per International Law
The World Health Organization recently declared COVID-19, a disease more commonly known as the Coronavirus, a global pandemic following its rapid spread. It now affects almost 176 countries. Around 225,000 cases have been reported around the globe which have resulted in nearly 10,000 deaths.
This is not the first time that the world has been hit by a global pandemic. We have seen various outbreaks in the past, such as the plague in 1720, cholera in 1820 and the Spanish flu in the early 19th century. However, the intensity of COVID-19 is much greater than any of the others which poses a great threat to the human race and a heavy burden of responsibility on state governments.
In terms of the role and performance of state governments in the situation, the response of the federal government of Pakistan has been pretty controversial. The country is said to have reported around 380 cases, which are increasing every day in all provinces including Gilgil-Baltistan and Azad Jammu-Kashmir. Given the circumstances and measures taken by the federal government, these numbers are most likely to increase in the near future as well.
Let’s start with the facilities of quarantine established by the Balochistan government and federal government at the Pak-Iran border of Taftan in Pakistan, where 3000 Pakistani immigrants from Iran had been stopped and placed in isolation for screening purposes. There are certain provisions of international law which deal with such facilities and the treatment of people inside these facilities, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR). ICCPR focuses on the rights of people, which have to be upheld by their respective states. It would be incorrect to refer to the facility at Taftan as a quarantine facility as there were no isolation wards and around 3000 people were left to stay in one large area where they all stayed together for a few days. This itself shows how incompetent and negligent the authorities have been in effectively building and maintaining a quarantine facility. The authorities claimed that all people quarantined at the facility would stay for 14 days and would only be released after they had been tested and cleared by the medical personnel. However, the effectiveness and implementation of that claim can only be assessed by analyzing the news of nearly 120 people from the facility being tested positive after arriving in their homes in Sindh. A man also managed to escape the facility and flee to Lahore while being quarantined. All these atrocities are a clear violation of Article 12(1) of the ICESCR which states that every individual has a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Pakistan being a signatory to this Covenant has clearly breached this provision by failing to provide even an ounce of such right to the civilians held at Taftan.
It was also noted and stated by people in an interview on Geo News that the facility at Taftan had been a mess when it came to hygiene and sanitation. People were forced to use dirty toilets, wear the same masks for a week and live in poor conditions. Furthermore, most inhabitants were only fed once a day. Such poor conditions are in clear violation of Article 7 of ICCPR which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of people. The authorities responsible for the facility at Taftan clearly failed to uphold this right for its inhabitants. This shows the ineffectiveness of the little measures taken by our government in order to prevent the spread of the outbreak in the country.
It should also be noted that the Prime Minister in his recent address to the nation refused to put the country on lockdown for economic reasons, which is actually forcing people to work during a global pandemic. This is a violation of Article 7(b) of the ICESCR 1966 which states that all state parties (Pakistan is a state party) should ensure that its people have a safe and healthy environment to work in. With that said, when the government refused to put the country on lockdown and forced people to work during a global pandemic, it put their health and safety in great risk, which is a clear violation of this provision.
There have been other violations of the provisions of international law as well. For example, it is a known fact that many people who survive on daily wages will be out of work due to the pandemic and will be needing financial assistance, yet the federal government refuses to provide the same. This is a violation Article 11(1) of the ICESCR which requires the state to make sure that every citizen has access to food, water and shelter as well as other basic necessities of life. Since small businesses and cottage industries are going out of business due to the outbreak, a large chunk of our population is facing a scarcity of these utilities. The government, by failing to address this situation, is violating these principles as well.
Pakistan being a state party to these international covenants cannot turn a blind eye towards violation of the same. By signing them and by being a member of the United Nations, it has undertaken to provide certain rights to its people. Voters still await an effective response from the government they have chosen to be represented by. Recent responses from the government and its representatives, including the Prime Minister himself, have failed to meet the expectations of the people they have to take care of. In fact, they have also failed to take a bare minimum approach to stop the spread of the pandemic and support families during this stressful situation. If this continues, the government will not only stand to disappoint its own people but also the international community and its laws.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.