As we enter the second half of 2020, the constraints on our daily lives brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have become a firm reality. New local lockdowns and the reintroduction of restrictive measures prompted by fresh outbreaks of the virus are a stark reminder that COVID-19 continues to shape our lives – and our enjoyment of fundamental rights – in profound ways.
The stabilisation of COVID-19 infections across much of the European Union (EU) provides a moment to reflect on the immense contribution of institutions and people from across our diverse societies who have stepped up to promote and protect fundamental rights. Medical staff and other frontline workers have ensured that essential services kept running. Courts have pushed back against excessive regulation. National bodies – National Human Rights Institutions, Equality Bodies, Ombuds and Data Protection Authorities, among others – have provided much-needed monitoring, guidance and advice. Civil society has not only advocated for rights, but delivered vital services, often incredibly creatively. Their contributions can provide a blueprint for dealing with future crisis situations, and it is crucial that their stories are heard.
At the same time, looking across this series of four bulletins, there is compelling evidence of how the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges in our societies. Sections of our populations have exploited COVID-19 to attack minorities already subject to appalling levels of discrimination and hate crime. The rapid spread of disinformation risks undermining trust in the measures and institutions essential to containing the virus. Women have taken on a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities prompted by the closure of schools and support services, endangering hard-fought progress towards gender equality.
The gradual reduction in the constraints on our lives shines the light on us, on our personal and social responsibility to contain the pandemic and mitigate its effects. Delivering on that responsibility, both individually and collectively, is our greatest fundamental rights challenge going forward.
The approach to reopening educational institutions varied across Member States in June. While some completely reopened their educational systems, others kept schools shut. Most alternated between face-to-face and remote teaching. This had consequences for the right to education of all children in the EU, without discrimination (Articles 14 and 21 of the Charter).
By late June, most economic sectors were operating again across the EU, but under health and hygiene protocols. Ongoing economic pressures and preventative measures against the virus can affect fundamental rights including: workers’ rights to information and consultation (Article 27), protection in the event of unjustified dismissal (Article 30), the right to fair and just working conditions (Article 31), social security and social assistance (Article 34), the right to health (Article 35), but also the freedom to choose an occupation, the right to engage in work (Article 15), and the freedom to conduct a business (Article 16).
Disruption to judicial proceedings affects people’s right to access justice, in particular the right to an effective remedy and a fair trial (Article 47). It also has possible implications for the right to equality before the law (Article 20) and the right to good administration (Article 41). Judicial systems continued to resume normal operations across the EU, while implementing new health and safety guidelines to contain the spread of COVID-19 and working to address the backlog in cases resulting from earlier restrictions.
Most Member States acted in line with the European Commission’s recommendation to extend the restrictions on travel to the EU to the end of June. At the same time, Member States continued to ease temporary controls at their internal borders.
The situation of older persons and persons with disabilities living in institutions gave particular cause for concern, given the high rates of infections and deaths in these settings and the impact of visiting bans on residents’ wellbeing.
Issues around access to treatment and testing, access to services and the impact of isolation affect older people’s right to lead a life in dignity and independence, as enshrined in Article 25 of the Charter, alongside many other fundamental rights.
Persons with disabilities continued to face challenges in everyday life because of the pandemic.
Access to clean water and sanitation, loss of jobs and employment opportunities, and the continued vulnerable situation of children remained pressing concerns for many Roma and Travellers in June.
Detention conditions and measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect detainees’ rights across the EU. Several Member States reported new COVID-19 infections among prisoners and prison staff.
Evidence from some Member States indicated that domestic violence increased during confinement.
Disinformation related to COVID-19 continued to circulate, particularly on social media, as reported in Bulletin #1. The European Commission issued a Joint Communication in June 2020 recalling the crucial role played by freedom of expression and a pluralistic democratic debate when fighting disinformation.
By the end of June, contact-tracing apps and other technological tools to combat the pandemic were available or well underway in several Member States, raising a number of data protection and privacy concerns, as highlighted in Bulletin #1 and Bulletin #2.