18 Dec 2020

Rights of persons with disabilities during COVID-19: How have NHRIs responded?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particular impact on persons with disabilities, who are severely affected by systemic challenges, some of which have become more evident and complex during the crisis. Most states have failed to act based on the needs of persons with disabilities and have not responded to challenges in ways that respect and promote international standards, most notably the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).In this context, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) have played a key role in promoting rights-based approaches.

Guest post by Ekaterine Skhiladze, Office of the Public Defender of Georgia, Chair of ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group

Among others, European NHRIs have identified a number of issues with respect to the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic, including:

  • Proper access to information in order to ensure awareness about the COVID-19 prevention and related restrictions
  • Deterioration in psychological and mental conditions caused by isolation and social distancing
  • Delays in access to general and specific health services and the suspension of essential therapy and rehabilitation services
  • Effective involvement of persons with disabilities in the educational process
  • Social programmes failing to meet the individual needs of persons with disabilities during the pandemic

The pandemic’s impact has been especially severe on children, older persons and women with disabilities.

In response, NHRIs have reacted swiftly to these and other human rights challenges, as well as in relation to economic and social rights, migration, and human rights accountability in general.

NHRIs’ work in a new reality

To ensure continued protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, NHRIs have adapted their practices to the new reality by: developing new monitoring and data collection methods, finding new means of communication, distributing protective equipment, conducting research, and adhering to and promoting the guidelines developed by international organisations, among others. They have also simplified procedures for receiving complaints and applications through various means of communication to reduce formal barriers for persons with disabilities in an effort to hear their voices.

ENNHRI has served as a platform for the exchange of information among NHRIs. This includes on a range of issues, such as: how different countries deal with existing challenges; effective measures used by NHRIs to protect the rights of persons with disabilities during states of emergency; how NHRIs can work alongside persons with disabilities to understand their concerns during this time; and how to ensure persons with disabilities are not left behind in governments’ responses to the pandemic.

Monitoring human rights during the pandemic

COVID-19 has revealed the extremely vulnerable situation of persons with disabilities in closed institutions, such as residential, medical or care facilities. The pandemic has further exacerbated their exclusion and isolation from the community, including from relevant authorities and family members, making monitoring carried out by independent mechanisms such as NHRIs ever more important.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is yet another reminder that states are lagging behind in their deinstitutionalisation efforts, despite their commitments under the UN CRPD and the strong stance of the UN CRPD Committee. The spread of the virus in closed and residential facilities has revealed that deinstitutionalisation and independent living allow the most effective protection from COVID-19.

While persons with disabilities remain in closed institutions, it is vital to monitor, promote and protect their rights. A particular challenge for NHRIs has been their need to suspend or reduce monitoring visits in order to “do no harm” and ensure that they could resume on-site monitoring safely. NHRIs have recognised that less visits could lead to increased neglect and violence against people in institutions. To assist NHRIs, ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group, chaired by the Georgian NHRI (Office of the Public Defender of Georgia), held a webinar on the topic.

Continuing to protect the rights of persons with disabilities

While there have been many gaps and challenges in the immediate responses to the pandemic, states have developed better understanding of the impact of the pandemic and ways to respect the rights of persons with disabilities in responses and recovery policies. This must be in line with obligations under the UN CRPD.

NHRIs are ideally placed to monitor and advise governments on the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic. In order to work effectively, NHRIs will have to continue to be proactive and exchange information and practices in relation to their human rights mandate. In 2021, ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group will continue to hold regular meetings and webinars, conduct common research on topics of interest, and discuss relevant national, regional and international developments.

» Learn more about European NHRIs’ responses to COVID-19
» Learn more about European NHRIs’ work on the rights of persons with disabilities

Photo: Marcus Aurelius/Pexels