The coronavirus outbreak is a test of our systems, values and humanity

Jordan. Qusai (11) washes his hands in the sink at home

A young refugee washes his hands in Mafraq, Jordan, where a solar-powered heating system installed with support from the IKEA Foundation and Practical Action helps provide hot water.  © UNHCR/Hannah Maule-ffinch

If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home.

No country can tackle this alone, and no part of our societies can be disregarded if we are to effectively rise to this global challenge.

Covid-19 is a test not only of our health-care systems and mechanisms for responding to infectious diseases, but also of our ability to work together as a community of nations in the face of a common challenge.

It is a test of the extent to which the benefits of decades of social and economic progress have reached those living on the margins of our societies, farthest from the levers of power.

The coming weeks and months will challenge national crisis planning and civil protection systems – and will certainly expose shortcomings in sanitation, housing and other factors that shape health outcomes.

“Our response to this epidemic must encompass – and in fact, focus on – those whom society often neglects.”

Our response to this epidemic must encompass – and in fact, focus on – those whom society often neglects or relegates to a lesser status. Otherwise, it will fail.

The health of every person is linked to the health of the most marginalised members of the community. Preventing the spread of this virus requires outreach to all, and ensuring equitable access to treatment.

This means overcoming existing barriers to affordable, accessible health care, and tackling long-ingrained differential treatment based on income, gender, geography, race and ethnicity, religion or social status.

Overcoming systemic biases that overlook the rights and needs of women and girls, or – for example – limit access and participation by minority groups, will be crucial to the effective prevention and treatment of Covid-19.

People living in institutions – the elderly or those in detention – are likely to be more vulnerable to infection and must be specifically addressed in crisis planning and response.

Migrants and refugees – regardless of their formal status – must be an integral part of national systems and plans for tackling the virus. Many of these women, men and children find themselves in places where health services are overstretched or inaccessible.

They may be confined to camps and settlements, or living in urban slums where overcrowding, and poorly resourced sanitation, increases the risk of exposure.

“The coronavirus will also undoubtedly test our principles, values and shared humanity.”

International support is urgently needed to help host countries step up services – both for migrants and local communities – and include them in national surveillance, prevention and response arrangements. Failure to do so will endanger the health of all – and risk heightening hostility and stigma.

It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution from accessing safety and protection.

Beyond these very immediate challenges, the path of the coronavirus will also undoubtedly test our principles, values and shared humanity.

Spreading rapidly around the world, with uncertainty surrounding the number of infections and with a vaccine still many months away, the virus is stirring deep fears and anxieties in individuals and societies.

Some unscrupulous people will undoubtedly seek to take advantage of this, manipulating genuine fears and heightening concerns.

When fear and uncertainty kick in, scapegoats are never far away. We have already seen anger and hostility directed at some people of east Asian origin.

If left unchecked, the urge to blame and exclude may soon extend to other groups – minorities, the marginalized or anyone labelled “foreigner”.

People on the move, including refugees, may be particularly targeted. Yet the coronavirus itself does not discriminate; those infected to date include holidaymakers, international business people and even national ministers, and are located in dozens of countries, spanning all continents.

Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis. Political leaders must take the lead, earning trust through transparent and timely information, working together for the common good, and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

Ceding space to rumour, fear mongering and hysteria will not only hamper the response but may have broader implications for human rights, the functioning of accountable, democratic institutions.

No country today can wall itself off from the impact of the coronavirus, both in the literal sense and – as falling stock markets and closed schools demonstrate – economically and socially.

An international response that ensures that developing countries are equipped to diagnose, treat and prevent this disease will be crucial to safeguarding the health of billions of people.

The World Health Organization is providing expertise, surveillance, systems, case investigation, contact tracing, and research and vaccine development. It is a lesson that international solidarity and multilateral systems are more vital than ever.

In the long term, we must accelerate the work of building equitable and accessible public healthcare. And how we respond to this crisis now will undoubtedly shape those efforts for decades to come.

If our response to coronavirus is grounded in the principles of public trust, transparency, respect and empathy for the most vulnerable, we will not only uphold the intrinsic rights of every human being. We will be using and building the most effective tools to ensure we can ride out this crisis and learn lessons for the future.

Michelle Bachelet is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Filippo Grandi is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This article was first published by The Telegraph.