Report on COVID-19 Responses by Non-Governmental Actors

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The UN-OHCHR’s Development, Economic, and Social Issues Branch has partnered with several academic and research institutions, including UTokyo’s Hub, to build a crowdsourcing database of promising practices, implemented by governments and other stakeholders, aimed at adapting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hub publicly announced this partnership through its website on 22 July 2020. Through this report, the Hub’s team of researchers selected remarkable cases from the crowdsourcing database, highlighting the novelty of their approaches in responding to the challenges posed by COVID-19. By putting a spotlight on these practices, the project hopes that stakeholders in COVID-19 response across different sectors will emulate and integrate these effective and innovative examples in their own practice, while also enhancing their contributions to protection of human rights, in particular economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) objectives, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Hub’s researchers considered two main criteria in adding examples of COVID- 19 responses to the crowdsourcing database. First is that the example takes account of and incorporates the protection of one or more of the following areas of human rights in its practice: right to health, work, housing, water and sanitation, education, food, social protection, access to information, privacy, life, liberty and security of persons, and protection of the family. Second is that the example aims to protect, assist, or respond to the needs of one or more of the following marginalized individuals or communities amidst the pandemic: older persons, persons with disabilities, children, women and girls, minorities, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons, LGBT+, and indigenous peoples.

Examples and practices that have been entered into the crowdsourcing database are deemed to have been conducted under human rights principles of equality and non- discrimination, participation, accountability, universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and equality and non-discrimination. In building the crowdsourcing database, the Hub researchers provided brief descriptions of each practice, as well as explanations of why these examples satisfied the two main criteria previously mentioned. Much of the information entered the database came from online sources describing these remarkable examples of COVID-19 responses. The Hub’s research concentrated on practices from the following locations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

From the extensive list of remarkable responses to COVID-19 that protect human rights, the research team selected seven practices and, through this report, highlighted the innovative ways in which they were able to respond to the deficiency in human rights protection, posed by the pandemic for the most vulnerable segments of society. By highlighting these stories of adaptation, innovation, cooperation, and consideration for the fundamental principles of human rights, this contribution to the crowdsourcing database project hopes to demonstrate that effective and ingenious responses to global emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, must involve a variety of actors from multiple levels of both domestic and global societies.
Governments continue to be the duty-bearer of protection of all human rights of all the people, and that applies equally to all responses to the pandemic. However, faced with the rapid and global spread of COVID-19 and the need for robust emergency responses, there were gaps in the protection of human rights, especially for marginalized or vulnerable people and communities. What was significant was that the individuals and organizations presented here recognized these gaps which can be filled through their initiatives. There are nationwide efforts that supplement government responses, and there are smaller, locally established projects that aim to address the immediate needs of communities. An apparent and crucial attribute of these responses is their cognizance of the need to protect affected human rights of particularly marginalized segments of society affected by the pandemic, as well as the reasons for the deterioration of their circumstances. Realizing the enormous impact of the pandemic on a huge number of marginalized communities, it is also notable that concerned individuals and organizations exerted remarkable efforts to coordinate responses between different sectors. The recognition of the root causes of exacerbated marginalization amidst the pandemic, as well as the coordination between public and private sectors in implementing these flexible and innovative responses, are only some of the most notable contributions of these practices to the mainstreaming of human rights approaches in pandemic responses. This report also presents the following findings about the highlighted responses’ acknowledgment of a human rights framework in their practice. The Modified ‘Door-to-Door Teaching’ Approach of elementary school teachers in Indonesia exemplified how small community actors can be conscious of human rights and make significant and tailored contribution to protect them despite the restrictions imposed by the government on citizens. Government-mandated school closures compelled these teachers to employ a teaching practice they have always been accustomed to, given the challenges in educating students from remote farming communities. The teachers realize that while right to health is of utmost concern during the pandemic, upholding the right to education is equally important.

The bamboo face shield project led by a workers’ association in the Philippines equally protects the right health and the right to work during a time of extraordinary socioeconomic uncertainties. Recognizing the increasing demand for personal protective equipment particularly for frontline workers, the association helped fill gaps through products made from sustainable materials. These face shields were made by local bamboo weavers, most of whom lost livelihood opportunities amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Effectively, the effort to fill gaps in health response allowed the association to uphold workers’ right to access dignified work opportunities. The initiative also contributed to the realization of the right to equality by providing inclusive employment to men, women, and even out-of-school youth.

The initiative of the Indonesian Psychological Association is remarkable in that it has built on the government-led coordinated response to the health emergency, and filled the identified gap of protection swiftly. Through its network of volunteers, it helped expand the capability of Indonesia’s helpline to address previously neglected concerns. By adapting to present circumstances, and taking advantage of available coordination mechanisms, the initiative enhanced access to psychological and mental health services – aspects of the right to health often overlooked by governments.

The Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation’s initiative is another example of power of coordination between civil society, religious organizations, the business community, and the state in protecting human rights. Using its experience in disaster and emergency response, as well as its extensive network of connections in small communities, their project helped address the heightened difficulty of upholding the right to food, particularly for the poorest segments of society. The organization understood that the best way for relief to reach potential beneficiaries in the safest possible way is to distribute gift certificates that can be used to purchase food items in supermarkets. The initiative has been particularly convenient for those who have lost livelihood opportunities, and those whose mobility were controlled, because of government-mandated restrictions.

In somewhat similar manner, the work of a volunteer organization in Singapore helped uphold the human rights of a vulnerable group whose vulnerability has exacerbated by the pandemic: migrants in the country. Food and hygiene necessities, psychological and mental support, and legal assistance, were identified as most needed by the migrants themselves. The organization relieved some of the burdens of migrant workers whose employment and health were imperiled by the pandemic, first, due to sudden layoffs, and second, due to their detrimental living conditions in dormitories, by providing identified assistance. Through their volunteer initiative, the organization demonstrated appreciation that migrant populations have equal rights as other citizens.

A similar best practice was delivered by a student-led refugee support group in Japan. This group relied on already-existing engagement with refugees and asylum seekers confined in detention centers in the country, helping them with immediate concerns such as food, masks and other hygiene and safety necessities, and even the translation of important documents. Through their efforts, the organization helped both the rights to food and health of refugees and asylum seekers. Considering the difficult predicament of these groups in the detention centers even prior to the pandemic, the student group’s continued engagement helped assure refugees and asylum seekers that their rights are recognized even if there are gaps in the government’s responses to their plight.

Finally, the ‘Mask Map’ website in Thailand is a notable example demonstrating how even individuals can contribute in addressing the need to protect the right to health of the general public. The strength of individuals is that they can plan and operate freely and flexibly, responding to the needs swiftly. The website’s developer took advantage of his skillset and the network of concerned citizens to build a crowdsourced website containing information on the location and price of masks. In this way, he managed to utilize information from people and communities across the country and assisted the general public on critical information for protecting everyone’s right to health. Not only did it help protect people’s right to help by connecting the website users to the location of shops that sell masks, but also assisted small shops experiencing hardship amidst the economic impact of the pandemic. This example is also remarkable for its innovative approach to ensuring access to information, and is notable for the involvement of ordinary people, the business community, the government, and to an extent, large technology companies.

Read the full report HERE.

Article by the UTokyo International Hub Law