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Coronavirus

This Pandemic Is about Human Rights: Alex Neve of Amnesty International

A video interview with Canada’s AI secretary general on crisis and opportunity.

Missy Johnson 6 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Missy Johnson is an intern with The Tyee as a part of Journalists for Human Rights Emerging Indigenous Reporter program. She is a recent graduate of the Langara College journalism program.

In this latest instalment of Salt Spring Forum video interviews with leading thinkers on the pandemic, Alex Neve, secretary-general at Amnesty International Canada’s English branch, sits down with former B.C. Supreme Court justice Catherine Wedge. They discuss the impact COVID-19 has on human rights and freedoms in Canada.

Every aspect of the crisis, Neve says, is about human rights. “The virus is a full-frontal cruel attack on the right to health and sadly, in so many instances the right to life itself. All of the manifestations of the economic crisis and the ways in which it is threatening people’s livelihoods and abilities to meet basic necessities, that’s all about human rights as well.”

The virus has affected certain communities differently. “The ways in which both the virus and the economic crisis have particular impact on marginalized communities raises real concerns about discrimination and equality, which in many respects, is one of the most fundamental tenants of the entire human rights system,” he says.

Wedge notes the impact the Spanish Flu had on human rights and asks whether Neve thinks we’ll see that same transformation after COVID-19. “Because of course, the Spanish flu as we know, affected so disproportionately the poor and the vulnerable at that time,” she says.

“There's a whole host of health professionals and families across the country who have known that reality for a long time but now the entire country is aware of it,” Neve responds. “These inequities are not only fundamentally unjust and of course what we’ve seen is that inequities for one community inevitably have impacted consequences much more widely as well.”

The pandemic has shown the ways in which we are all interconnected. “So with all of that in front of us, if this doesn't become that transformative moment, it's to the disgrace and shame of all of us,” he said. But we can’t rely on our governments and business leaders to ignite needed changes, she argues. We must take it upon ourselves.

“We need to be part of setting that agenda, laying out those expectations, mobilizing and taking action,” he says. “And I think we all know, human nature is what it is, the window of time within which we will still have that raw attention from the public, which will make that kind of transformation possible will not be a long one.”

Who will shape our post-pandemic reality? “It's not only the human rights activists who need to be at that table, economists need to be, communities need to be at that table, contributing to those discussions,” he said. “That needs to happen in a meaningful and robust way and it needs to happen quite quickly. We all have to now look at how we're going to shift this paradigm.”

Wedge asks a submitted question about people experiencing homelessness and how their inability to isolate will affect the rest of the population. “I think about Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside, where people simply can't go anywhere to socially distance,” she says. “Where is the balance here?”

Neve acknowledges that some municipalities have partnered with hotels to ensure people experiencing homelessness can practice physical distancing but that across the country municipalities have all responded differently and frontline workers are still trying to "sound the alarm.”

“It's one of the messages that we've been conveying as part of our human rights work. None of us are safe unless all of us are safe,” Neve says. “And you can say, none of our rights are protected here unless all of our rights are protected here and I think that's the approach we need to take.”

How are refugees faring given borders are still closed? “Even before the crisis, we [at Amnesty International] have had long standing concerns about Canada's approach to refugee protection along the U.S.-Canada border,” responds Neve, who is a former attorney for refugees.

He notes that the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement allowed refugees crossing the border irregularly to safely enter Canada and make a refugee claim. “And that’s now been shut down,” says Neve. “It’s illegal and it's a breach of international law.”

Wedge finishes the discussion with a question on whether or not vaccines, when they become available, should be mandatory for all Canadian citizens. “I guess it would depend on what the science tells us about the nature of that vaccine,” Neve says.

The Tyee is partnering with Salt Spring Forum on this video interview and others, including with physician and author Kevin Patterson, China historian Timothy Brook, and climate change author and activist Bill McKibben.  [Tyee]

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