Restrictions on rights and freedoms during the Covid-19 pandemic: What states need to do to ensure citizens’ support for epidemiological measures

Prof. Goran Bandov, expert in European and international relations and diplomacy, University of Zagreb


Human rights and freedoms are being restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One part of the citizens finds it harder to accept the restrictions and changes that the measures bring to their daily lives. The article concentrates on the question of what the states should do, to ensure the support of citizens for the implementation of epidemiological measures. The key is the need to reliably inform citizens about the pandemic, involve all citizens in the fight against the pandemic, protect against discrimination, provide livelihoods for all citizens affected by the measures and responsible behavior of state representatives, who must have an exemplary attitude to epidemiological measures.

European (non) acceptance of reality

Covid-19 was first Chinese and then Asian, and then it slowly became a global, as well as a European, problem. The more we knew about him, the more we realized how little we actually knew. Europe has long ignored signals, living as if the corona crisis is happening somewhere else, far away from it, as it is not its problem, nor will it ever become. Even when the first officially recorded cases appeared in France and Italy, Europe denied a potential problem on its territory. In addition, Europeans were quite convinced that they had a strong health system, which would respond very effectively if any health challenge occurred. But as the pressure on the healthcare system became worrying, it was increasingly understood that Covid-19 came to Europe to take root. Europe has begun to introduce defense mechanisms.

Introduction of epidemiological measures to protect human life and health

As it was not known at the beginning of the pandemic what we were specifically fighting against, the most effective measure was the introduction of complete quarantine. This measure has been implemented by a number of European countries, without prior mutual agreement, in a domino effect. Border crossings were closed all over Europe, only citizens of those countries could enter. In mid-March 2020, almost all of Europe was blocked. All European countries have committed themselves to protecting human lives and human health in a way that seems appropriate to them at the time, neglecting other aspects, including the socio-economic dimensions of citizens’ daily lives.

The introduction of (almost) complete closure of the state and society, a measure that modern Europe has not encountered, seemed necessary, in order to protect human lives and human health. Measures ranged from the closure of schools and service activities, to the introduction of very restrictive curfews in some countries (eg Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia). All these measures took some form of restriction of freedom of movement. On the other hand, some countries chose to leave society relatively open, they seemed like exotic exceptions, such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, which at the beginning of the pandemic declaration had a very open model of pandemic control. However, Sweden gradually adjusted the measures and tightened them. The UK has been much faster in changing course due to strong pressure on the healthcare system. Already after a few weeks of the open model, the UK decided to significantly tighten its measures, among other things, by completely closing society, allowing people to leave the house solely to procure the most basic groceries. It was a measure, which has meanwhile been implemented in a number of other European countries.

After the first shock, citizens soon began to question the appropriateness of a series of measures as a social response to the pandemic. Calls for the protection of endangered human rights, primarily the right to freedom of movement, which were linked to other rights and freedoms, were heard more and more strongly. Those who are deprived of their freedom of movement cannot, for example, earn income from work, their freedom of entrepreneurship is endangered, but also their right to family life, if, for example, the family lives separately.

The public debate raised questions about whether human rights can be restricted and if so, whether there are some that have special protection and can never be restricted or abolished. As there was a reluctance of citizens to long-term abstinence from freedom of movement, but also a number of other rights and freedoms, the question arose as to what the state should do to gain stronger support from citizens to implement (restrictive) epidemiological measures.

The issue of restricting human rights

The realization of some of the human rights and freedoms, which citizens are accustomed to enjoying completely freely, can become a real challenge in extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic. Freedom may be restricted only when it begins to threaten the freedom of another. A number of European and international legal documents guarantee the right to life and protection of life, as well as the right to health and health care. Consequently, (European) states are obliged to take all necessary steps to prevent threats to public health.

The moment the World Health Organization declares a pandemic, it is actually declaring a state of emergency for the entire world. European states immediately took a series of steps to ensure essential human rights related to life and health, which are directly threatened by the pandemic. At the same time, the introduction of a series of epidemiological measures had a direct effect and restricted the freedoms of citizens. European states have found a legal basis for the restriction of certain freedoms and rights in the (European) Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Art. 5.e., Art. 8-11), which explicitly states that preventing the spread of infectious diseases can be a reason to restrict the freedoms of citizens.

At the same time, we should emphasize that not all human rights and freedoms can be restricted, but some of them must be respected in extraordinary circumstances such as: the right to life; prohibitions on holding someone in bondage or slavery-like relationship; the slave trade is prohibited in all its forms; no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

All restrictions resulting from extraordinary circumstances, due to the declaration of a pandemic and fear for human life and health, must be strictly expedient in order to achieve a higher goal, must be proportionally implemented and discrimination in the application and restriction of these rights and freedoms is strictly prohibited. In addition, all these restrictions may be introduced only as a temporary measure while there is a direct threat to human life and health. As soon as this necessity is absent, measures restricting human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of movement, should be abolished.

What must the state do if it wants citizens to accept human rights restrictions more responsibly

A series of epidemiological measures aimed at protecting human life and health restrict certain rights and freedoms enjoyed by citizens until then, force people to get out of their previous daily lives, commodities, to adapt living conditions to new measures, restrain themselves by framing themselves in a new normal state . Due to the application of these measures, a part of the citizens feel like a convict, to whom measures have been imposed without a specific meaning and reason. They resent, among other things, restrictions on their freedom of movement, the right to work and entrepreneurship, the right to privacy and family life.

In order to resist the introduction of new epidemiological measures, a part of the citizens knowingly violate the introduced measures, sign petitions and publicly protest against them. In addition, there are a number of groups of citizens on social networks, who deny the pandemic and the existence of the Covid-19 virus or its impact on human health and mortality. Such groups on social networks are a very good nursery for the idea of ​​resistance to the introduction of measures. Within these groups, a range of information is often questioned, so the impression remains that the lack of reliable information is a key challenge for citizens, primarily for those who oppose the measures, but also for those who agree with them.

Consequently, a key question arises – what should states do to gain the support of all citizens (or at least most of them) so that epidemiological measures can be fully successful. As soon as a significant part of the citizens violate the measures, the social defense mechanism gains too many loopholes in that system of defending society from the virus. As a result, there is a direct threat to human health and life. Therefore, states need to work significantly more effectively on the implementation of a series of measures to ensure the support of citizens in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Concrete measures to ensure the support of citizens for the implementation of measures

Measures to ensure citizens’ consent are exclusively supportive measures in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, and they function as additional but necessary measures that can contribute to the effectiveness of the epidemiological fight. Some of the proposed measures are already in place in some countries, most of them should be applied in the daily life of every society and on a number of other issues so that society can be more responsible, informed, inclusive, protected and more sustainable. The proposed four measures are intertwined and complementary, leaving room for some additional measures to be introduced, which could be a response to local circumstances depending on the individual country and society.

  1. Strengthening the information and education of citizens

States must be completely transparent in conducting public (media) campaigns. In doing so, they must always advocate exclusively the interest of the citizens. At the same time, states need to make a significant effort to reduce the impact of the infodemia, and in particular fake news in the media and social media space. Sensationalism and incitement to fear will certainly not contribute to a more rational acceptance of and judgment based on reliable information, so such activities should always be avoided.

The academic and professional community is a strategic ally of the state in educating citizens about the pandemic, the Covid-19 virus, epidemiological measures, vaccines and all other important issues related to the pandemic. Every expert should provide reliable information to the public in the field in which he is an expert, always acting responsibly in the interest of protecting the life and health of citizens.

The media should be a strategic ally in the process of informing citizens. It will certainly not contribute to this alliance that in a number of (European) countries media freedoms are further restricted during a pandemic, but also that the ownership structure of individual media is not too interested in the stability and prosperity of the society in which it operates. In this relationship with the media, the well-being of citizens and society as a whole, as well as their full and timely information, must always be a priority of the state.

This alliance of the state and the media in reliably informing citizens must not become an obstruction in media commentary and criticism of the work of state representatives, as well as all others involved in crisis management and society during a pandemic. On the contrary, criticism of management actors should be further encouraged to be even more responsible and committed to working for the common good of all citizens, or if they fail to withdraw and leave the position to someone else, who will be more responsible.

  1. Involvement of all citizens in the fight against the pandemic and protection against discrimination

Covid-19 threatens all people regardless of race, religion, nation, gender, gender, sexual orientation, or year of birth. All citizens are endangered and the state must provide equal protection to all. Therefore, the measures implemented by the state must be inclusive, fair and accountable, because otherwise, if the measures do not apply to some communities, the defense mechanism of society will become too vulnerable and porous, so it will become ineffective. Individuals, who are otherwise more vulnerable, are particularly affected during a pandemic.

Therefore, it is possible that some groups need additional protection, as the measures envisaged do not provide them with sufficient protection due to their higher exposure to the Covid-19 virus. This group certainly includes health professionals, especially those who work directly with infected patients. These particularly vulnerable groups also include the elderly, as well as people with chronic diseases and problems with the immune system. In the case of health personnel, additional protective measures should be provided for regular work as well as priority in vaccination against Covid-19 virus, and in the case of other mentioned groups, they should be provided with a higher degree of (self) isolation, such as working from home. when vaccinated.

In addition, all other groups (among others, children, women, members of ethnic, national and religious minorities, members of the LGBT community, migrants, refugees and displaced persons), who are otherwise in vulnerable social positions, must receive special protection from the state. to ensure that society’s defense mechanism is as permeable as possible, and that all citizens can exercise their rights and freedoms as much as possible in times of pandemic.

  1. Protection of livelihoods during a pandemic

In the pandemic period of complete closure, when the state introduces epidemiological measures that prevent the work of a number of activities, a large number of people in employment until then are left without the opportunity to create livelihoods, both for themselves and their families and employees. In addition, very often these citizens are burdened with loans and similar financial burdens, which, due to the suspension of work, become an extremely heavy burden. Also, the citizens of one part of European countries earn significant income in tourism, a branch of the economy, which suffers especially due to the closure of state borders and the closure of a number of service activities that are part of the regular tourist offer. If an individual has to fight for bare survival, he will violate the measures of complete confinement to secure a livelihood.

Therefore, it is necessary to temporarily provide financial support to all citizens, who due to the pandemic are not able to create a livelihood. It is important for the society, as well as for the common defense mechanism against the pandemic, that all citizens are protected and that there are no people who expose their lives and health in order to survive. In addition, the state must find measures to achieve full protection of human life and health, and at the same time enable citizens to earn a living, travel, use various services, play sports.

One of the steps in this direction is to reliably inform citizens about the vaccination against Covid-19 and the introduction of the so-called Covid-19 passport. States must provide citizens with reliable and proven vaccines, which will protect their lives and health. On the other hand, the so-called Covid-19 passports should enable the return of freedom of travel between countries and the revival of tourism as well as all industries associated with it.

  1. State representatives must be role models in implementing the measures

The representatives of the state must, by their actions, be a model of an appropriate attitude towards the introduced epidemiological measures. Of course, the measures should not be violated by anyone, but still those who manage social processes have a special responsibility. If the representatives of the state do not respect the restrictions on freedoms and rights, it is difficult to expect the same from the citizens. Citizens will have an “excuse” for violating the measures. Citizens will adapt their actions to frameworks that will be acceptable to them. Such behavior of the representatives of the state, as well as the citizens themselves, can directly jeopardize the entire fight of the society against the pandemic.

Consequently, if a ban on gathering more than ten people is in force, then a political rally with 11, especially not with 500 people, cannot be held. If an epidemiological measure has been introduced, which regulates that only 10 people may be present at a funeral, then there must be no more people at the funeral of the king or anyone else. In the case of nationally important fellow citizens, it is always possible to find a way to make citizens feel part of the final greeting without endangering their own health and the lives of others, for example by broadcasting a funeral via TV.

Once epidemiological measures are violated, especially in the absence of sanctions for all offenders, citizens will not feel obliged to comply with such measures. This can lead to a very dangerous situation that society must avoid, and the special responsibility lies precisely with those who manage the processes and who adopt epidemiological measures.

Instead of a conclusion

Restrictions on human rights and freedoms in extraordinary circumstances, such as the declared Covid-19 pandemic, are only allowed as a strictly expedient interim measure, which is proportionately implemented and does not discriminate against anyone. Some human rights and freedoms can never be subject to restriction. This applies in particular to the issue of the prohibition of the holding of slaves, the slave trade, torture, torture or similar inhuman punishment. After the state of emergency is over, citizens are given back the free enjoyment of rights and freedoms, which they could enjoy even before the introduction of the state of emergency.

As some citizens resist the implementation of epidemiological measures, the state must implement a number of additional measures, which should ensure the support of citizens in the fight against the pandemic. This support from the citizens is necessary, because without it the measures will not be feasible and Covid-19 will simply continue to endanger the lives and health of all citizens.

Reliable informing of citizens is proving to be a key moment in securing the support of citizens. The key allies in this information process are the academic and professional community and the media. In addition, as a very important measure to ensure the support of citizens, it is necessary to provide livelihoods for all citizens, which epidemiological measures have made it impossible to work. In order for the measures to receive the full support of the citizens, the full involvement of all citizens must be ensured and no group must be discriminated against. The role of state representatives as role models in implementing and complying with the measures is crucial. If the measures were not complied with by the representatives of the state, the citizens would have an excuse that they do not have to respect the adopted measures either.

We must not lose our minds, in this fight against the pandemic we are all together and only in this way can we achieve victory over Covid-19. That is why it is necessary to support the struggles of every citizen, every community and every state. No society or country in the world can defeat a pandemic alone. This is a world problem. We all have to deal with it together. When we win a pandemic, we don’t need to go back to the old – we need to be better people, better societies, a better world.

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021”. The author is solely responsible for the content and cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.