Professor Justine Nolan

As rolling lockdowns and closed borders become the norm in Australia, there is an increasing tendency to amp up the blame game and develop strident and inflexible responses to the threats posed by the pandemic.

While there is plenty of blame to go around (vaccine stroll-out anyone?) and justifiable frustration at what seems like an all so avoidable situation in NSW, it is worth taking a moment to temper our thoughts, actions, outbursts and regulatory responses with empathy, and consideration of basic human rights.

Empathy is simply an ability to understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. It is also about recognising that everyone deserves respect and to be treated with dignity. Whether it is in our personal, workplace or governmental reactions to the threats posed by COVID-19 pandemic, the inclusion of empathy can enhance our responses.

It is no coincidence that the concept of dignity lies at the heart of international human rights standards. It is mentioned in the first sentence of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights with a plea to recognise the ‘inherent dignity’ we are all owed simply by being human.  

Empathetic regulatory responses to the pandemic are a sign of strength which ensure that the necessary and sustainable actions to protect our health are balanced. They recognise that every person, no matter their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender or sexual orientation, deserves to be treated with dignity.

There is a human cost to rolling lockdowns and borders which periodically slam shut across the country. Millions of people in casual and insecure work are losing their income, experiencing poor mental health and risk becoming homeless. Industries such as hospitality, tourism, retail and fitness where work is often insecure and sporadic are being particularly hard hit. Young people, migrant workers, families, temporary visa holders, and international students are overrepresented in this experience.  

An empathetic regulatory response should reflect a balanced approach that is consistent with basic human rights standards and focus on proportionate measures. Individual rights need to be balanced against the rights of others, and the rights of the community as a whole. It is this approach that should be guiding us as we develop proactive and reactive regulatory responses to the pandemic.

The Australian government’s decision to further reduce (by half) the number of international arrivals to Australia leaves more than 30,000 Australians outside the country unable to avail themselves of the right to return. Eighteen months into this pandemic, Australia’s primary response has been to build a fortress that separates families and loved ones and takes an incalculable toll on their mental health. The media has relayed stories of separation both inside and outside Australia.

In an interim decision issued by the United Nations in April this year, Australia was requested to facilitate the return home of an Australian man to support his mother during cancer treatment.  Australia has just announced that it is appealing this on the basis that it would not cause this man ‘irreparable harm’. Empathetic and proportionate? Not so much. Inflexible? Yes.

A memo delivered this week to workers at Bayside Council, caught up in the latest Sydney lockdown, asked them to sign declarations that they were not supervising their children while working from home. An empathetic policy to balance the working from home demands? Not so much. Inflexible? Yes.

The announcement in NSW that an increased police response would be employed to counter the spread of the virus in south-west Sydney sparked a contrast with the response to the emergence of this latest outbreak in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. It sparked immediate comparisons with the Melbourne towers lockdown in the winter of 2020 and raises questions as to whether our regulatory responses treat people equally regardless of where they live or the colour of their skin.

Australia does not have a national human rights law. We have long relied on our willingness to ‘give everyone a fair go’ in the quest for equality and respect. For too long the ineffectiveness of this approach has been evidenced via a litany of stories detailing poorer health outcomes for Indigenous Australians or those trapped in our offshore detention programme. The pandemic has shone a light on the shortcomings of this approach for a broader array of Australians.

Human rights standards are designed to protect the most vulnerable but should also be used to guide regulatory responses to ensure there is an appropriate balance between rights and security for all Australia. As Benjamin Franklin wisely recognised more than two hundred years ago, life is a balancing act and those who give up liberty for security may never realise either.

Professor Justine Nolan is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute