New ICJ global report shows that the right to health must be central to State responses to COVID-19 

In a new report published today, the ICJ called on all States to ensure that their responses to the public health emergency brought on by the COVID-19 comply with the international human rights law and the right to health.

The report emphasized the particularly acute and discriminatory impact of the pandemic on already marginalized people and the need for access to health facilities, goods and services necessary to combat COVID-19 without discrimination.

The report Living Like People Who Die Slowly: The Need for Right to Health Compliant COVID-19 Responses documents the adverse human rights effects wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The title comes from the words of  Mama Yuli, an Indonesian transwoman, who has said that the pandemic left many elderly transwomen feeling like “they live like people who die slowly”.

The report emphasizes the need for a human rights and rule of law-based approach to the pandemic, with States working cooperatively to address a health crisis that by its nature knows no national boundaries.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is public health crisis that presents immeasurable threats to human rights and the rule of law globally, said Ian Seiderman, the ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director.

“But what is crucial is that States responses themselves not only respond immediately and effectively to COVID-19 as a public health emergency, but also as a human rights crisis”, he added.

Building on the ICJ’s earlier responses to COVID-19, the report details the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on non-citizens, older persons, women and girls, LGBT persons, persons deprived of their liberty, persons with disabilities, sex workers and healthcare workers.

The report also emphasizes the need for the provision of health information by State authorities in the context of COVID-19 and scrutinizes measures taken by States which have often curbed the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy.

For example, though “contracting tracing” measures may be effective they must also be human rights compliant and information gathered through such measures should not be used inappropriately or as an instrument of repression of individuals and human defenders.

Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all human rights, the report emphasizes the need for States to ensure provision and protection of access to the “social determinants of health” such as housing, food and water, themselves also internationally protected rights.

The report provides recommendations to States that may assist in ensuring right to health and human rights compliant responses to COVID-19.

The ICJ called on States to respect the various guidance offered by UN human rights treaty bodies and independent experts on how best to comply with their human rights obligations while responding to the pandemic.

The human rights system provides important guidance to States that was not available, for example, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which ultimately resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths.

“States must heed these calls for a human rights and rule of law-based response to COVID-19, as failure to do so will certainly result in death and human suffering that can still be avoided,” said Seiderman.

The report also raises the importance of compliance by businesses, including particularly private actors in the healthcare sector, with their responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to health.

This will be critical, for example, in ensuring the success of combined efforts of States and private companies in the development and ultimate distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.


Timothy Fish Hodgson, ICJ Legal Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, t: +27828719905 e:


Universal-Global Health COVID-19 Exec Sum-Publications-Reports-Thematic Reports-2020-ENG (Executive Summary, in PDF)

Universal-Global Health COVID-19-Publications-Reports-Thematic Reports-2020-ENG (Full report, in PDF)

Myanmar-ICJ-Right-to-Health-Report-2021-BUR.pdf (Full report in Burmese)

Read also

Human Rights in the time of COVID-19: Front and Centre – ICJ news, articles, op-eds, legal blogs, videos

COVID-19 Symposium: COVID-19 Responses and State Obligations Concerning the Right to Health (Part 1)

COVID-19 Symposium: COVID-19 Responses and State Obligations Concerning the Right to Health (Part 2)


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