Human rights and civil liberties must be balanced against the safety and health of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to B.C.’s human rights commissioner.
“Human rights are never more important than in times of crisis. It is precisely when they are hardest to to fulfill that they are the most important,” Commissioner Kasari Govender said in a video address posted to YouTube.
“It is in these challenging times that it becomes critical for us to know our human rights, for us to understand the scope and protections here in B.C., and for all of us to place human rights in the centre of our decision making.”
Govender released a statement Tuesday saying decisions that limit human rights and civil liberties “must be evidence-based, proportionate to the public health risk, temporary and transparent.”
“Like any other context, we must be vigilant about how racism, economic inequalities and classism, ableism, ageism and misogyny may all be factors in how people are treated and how people experience the pandemic,” she said.
A comprehensive policy statement from the commissioner and available online is intended to provide guidance to “employers, landlords, service providers and each of us as individuals about how to ensure that human rights are protected and balanced against urgent public health priorities.”
Govender says in the absence of the Human Right Tribunal or the courts being able to weigh in on whether COVID-19 amount to a disability, she says she believes it does.
“The seriousness of this illness – and the potential stigma that attaches to it – make it more akin to the legal protections that apply to HIV than to the common cold,” the policy statement says.
Discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ancestry or place of origin is also prohibited. This means that discrimination against someone who comes from a COVID-19 hotspot, like China or Italy, is prohibited. Restrictions based on recent travel may be considered reasonable, and not discriminatory, based on guidance from public health officials.
Below are just some of the findings of the full report.
“Employers cannot make hiring, discipline or firing decisions on the basis of whether a person has, or appears to have COVID-19. However, it is not discriminatory to lay off employees if there is no work for them to do because of the impacts of COVID-19,” the document says.
It goes on to say employers are required to accommodate workers who may have had the virus and precautions must be taken to prevent further spread within a workplace, which could include providing sick leave or letting employees work from home.
Employers cannot discipline employees unable to come to work because medical or public health officials have told them to self-isolate or enter self-quarantine in connection to the virus.
Protections must also be in place for workers with compromised immune systems or the elderly, which could include additional cleaning or allowing employees to work from home.
“Employers may also need to accommodate employees with increased child care obligations due to the pandemic. Protections related to family status may require employers to take all actions short of undue hardship to accommodate family care giving responsibilities where an employee is unable to cover the necessary care through other means.”
It also says employers should not require sick notes during this time due to the burden they would place on the medical system.
There is also direction for service providers, which include everything from health care, to homeless shelters, to food vendors.
The report says “service providers cannot turn away someone seeking assistance or services because that person appears to have COVID-19, unless it is necessary to keep themselves or others virus-free and there is no way (short of undue hardship) to do so otherwise.”
It also places grocery stores and pharmacies should consider creating times for vulnerable people such as the elderly to shop without other customers. That is something that is already being done by many places across Canada and in Metro Vancouver.
The report says landlords cannot turn away an application, harass a tenant, or evict someone because they have, or appear to have, COVID-19. The landlord is required to take precautions though, which includes cleaning common areas in buildings like elevators to help stop the spread.
Landlords may not turn away or evict tenants that have ties to COVID-19 hotspots (like China or Italy).
The commissioner is also urging landlords (though not required by law) to delay evictions due to non-payment of rent during the pandemic.
The office of the human rights commissioner is looking for public feedback on how the pandemic is affecting lives in B.C., including details about barriers and discrimination British Columbians may be facing.