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Virus lockdowns and quarantines must respect rights: UN

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The United Nations flag is seen during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Yana Paskova

Governments using lockdowns and quarantines to fight the deadly new coronavirus must ensure people’s rights are respected and avoid unintended consequences, the UN rights chief said Friday.

Michelle Bachelet said the response to the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus must place human dignity and rights at its centre.

Her office said lockdowns, quarantines and similar measures “should always be carried out in strict accordance with human rights standards and in a way that is necessary and proportionate”.

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Bachelet’s comments came as the number of people infected worldwide neared 100,000 across 85 nations, with more than 3,300 lives lost.

Most deaths and infections are in China, where the virus first emerged late last year, prompting the country to quarantine entire cities, temporarily shut factories and close schools indefinitely.

The epidemic has since reached almost 90 countries, wreaking havoc on international business, tourism, sports events and schools — with almost 300 million students sent home worldwide.

“As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken,” Bachelet said.

“However our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically.”

She said the most vulnerable must be protected, particularly those with low incomes or existing illnesses, older people and those living in institutions.

Meanwhile, the UN rights office warned that decisions to close schools could result in parents having to stay at home and requirements of “self-isolation” could also result in pay and job losses.

This could have “far-ranging consequences for people’s livelihoods and lives”, she said.

“People who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.

“Governments need to be ready to respond in a range of ways to unintended consequences of their actions aimed at the coronavirus.”

She said some governments were already taking action and called on businesses to respond with flexibility.

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