As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak disrupts global supply chains and shutters factories and stores around the world, companies are grappling in real time with the human rights implications of the coronavirus response. This raises a question that we have had little opportunity to ask ourselves before: How can we best protect public health while respecting individual human rights?

Coronavirus is raising a range of human rights dilemmas for business, including:

  • Discrimination, notably against ethnically Chinese and Asian persons (including persons of Asian descent and appearance). The outbreak of coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, has seen a global rise in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment spurred by fear and anxiety, leading to stigmatization. For example, there have been reports that some businesses worldwide, including restaurants, have barred entry to Chinese and Asian customers. Such discriminatory actions have been further fueled by media sensationalism as some news outlets have been criticized on how they have been reporting the crisis.
  • Privacy, as health and other personal data are collected in the workplace and in public, often via integration with facial recognition and other biometric technologies (including temperature testing). This in turn raises concerns about security of data storage, future use and misuse of data, and the risks of empowering authoritarian governments. Companies are now beginning to develop more sophisticated technologies with the ability to identify persons wearing face masks. Critics of such facial recognition technologies are concerned that coronavirus is giving authorities and companies the opportunity to ramp up surveillance.
  • Labor rights and worker welfare, with heightened risks for vulnerable workers and those in forced labor. On the one hand, workers risk unhealthy and stressful living and working conditions if employers do not set policies to allow people to work from home, self-quarantine, or take paid sick leave. On the other hand, workers risk lost wages or job loss if employers terminate contracts or withhold pay due to absences for illness, quarantine, or caring for a sick family member. Companies may also increase working hours to compensate for a reduced workforce, risking exploitation of their workers and undermining their health and well-being.
  • Freedom of expression, as employees face consequences for speaking publicly about working conditions, and companies address increased risks of disinformation. Employees who are critical of working conditions as well as business approaches to health and safety risk backlash, censorship, and in extreme cases termination of employment. It was recently alleged that an employee in Hong Kong was dismissed after he posted comments on Facebook criticizing his company’s response to coronavirus, specifically for not implementing a work-from-home policy and providing sub-standard face masks.

Coronavirus has put us all on notice that we must be ready with measures to ensure respect for human rights while protecting public health. The question for today is, “What’s the best way to do that?”

Companies can consider the following recommended actions to minimize adverse impacts on human rights stemming from their response to coronavirus or other public health crises in the future:

  • Limit employee exposure to coronavirus in the workplace through a suite of actions: personal protective measures (e.g., hand and respiratory hygiene supported by proactive training and distribution of hand sanitizers), environmental measures (e.g., cleaning of frequently used surfaces and common spaces, appropriate ventilations), workplace policies (e.g., screening at the entrance in the facilities, social distancing, and others), and work arrangements (e.g., rotational schedules that reduce person-to-person contact, and work-from-home arrangements for non-essential staff).
  • Provide paid leave in case of illness, quarantine, or to care for a sick family member. Employees who are required to work from home due to the outbreak should continue to receive their normal pay and benefits.
  • Develop a plan with suppliers to ensure worker welfare while supporting business continuity, such as flexible quotas and delivery schedules.
  • Ensure that any measures to increase working hours to compensate for workforce reductions are time-bound.
  • Establish non-discrimination policies and proactive measures to protect staff and customers from discrimination.
  • Ensure that personal data collection follows applicable regulations (e.g., GDPR), is limited to what is medically necessary (e.g., temperature), is provided under informed consent, and is not stored or used for purposes beyond public health measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Pandemics are increasingly likely in today’s hyperconnected world, and our collective well-being is shaped by the well-being of the most vulnerable among us. Coronavirus has put us all on notice that we must be ready with measures to ensure respect for human rights while protecting public health. The question for today is, “What’s the best way to do that?”

And the question for tomorrow is, “How can we see the next one coming?”


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