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Resisting extremism in a pandemic

Rights Rights and Freedoms
Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to this big island of ours, our leaders made a momentous decision: they decided to save as many human lives as possible.

This was the right decision. It shows we as a country care about human life above all else. But now we face an even harder question: how to save lives while preventing economic collapse and staying true to our democratic values?

In order to save lives, we are making other painful sacrifices. People are losing their jobs. There is real suffering behind closed doors for many elderly people, people with disability, victims of domestic violence and people experiencing homelessness. 

Even those of us who are relatively lucky are adjusting to new restrictions on our freedoms. We’re working from home, we’re home schooling our kids, and living in isolation from the people and activities we love.

Australia now has strict rules about when we can and can’t go out, what we can do and how many people we can see in person. There’s strong community support for these restrictions. We can see how those rules keep us safe from COVID-19.

We are all in this together and most people have willingly made these sacrifices for the greater good of our whole community.

But there’s also a hidden risk. Our willingness to accept sacrifice can leave us vulnerable to accepting greater restrictions on our freedom than are really needed to keep us safe.

We only need to look at some countries overseas to see what’s at stake. For example, some countries are spying on their citizens through new technology to enforce quarantine laws, or even welding infected residents inside their homes to stop the spread of the virus.

This is not happening in Australia. These are extreme examples, but the strongest protection against extremism is to be crystal clear about what we stand for as a country.

This is important because there are growing calls for Australia to copy some of the more extreme measures we’re seeing overseas. For example, some people have suggested our government should secretly use everything from CCTV to our mobile phone data to track us. These calls worry me.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s work on human rights and technology has shown this kind of use of technology can lead to human rights abuses. And, as we saw with ‘Robodebt’, automated enforcement can lead to serious errors.

Under international law, governments are allowed to restrict many of our freedoms in response to a public health emergency. But each restriction must be reasonable, necessary and proportionate to the threat. And these restrictions must be temporary. There also needs to be genuine independent oversight of the restrictions to make sure there are checks and balances.

We need to combat COVID-19 strongly and effectively. We are also the land of the ‘fair go’, and so we should be vigilant and push back on any restrictions that could do more harm than good.

As part of our commitment to the ‘fair go’, we must speak up for the most vulnerable in our communities. As Human Rights Commissioner, I inspect Australia’s immigration detention facilities. Many of the people in these facilities are seeking asylum from authoritarian conditions in their own countries. They certainly were not given a ‘fair go’ – in fact, many of them have experienced terrible things.

The people in immigration detention centres usually have to share small rooms with strangers. Keeping a physical distance in these places is pretty much impossible. Many health experts – the same experts we see on our televisions every night – are warning that there is a high risk of the virus spreading in these crowded immigration detention centres.

Last month, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases recommended that immigration detainees who do not pose a significant security or health risk should be released into housing in the community. I support this call. It is important for everyone; an outbreak of COVID-19 in a detention facility would easily spread to the wider Australian community.

We can be proud of how we as a nation have come together and risen to the challenge of COVID-19. But we must never forget our most vulnerable people. By keeping our commitment to human rights for everyone in Australia, we will ensure we keep the values we prize most highly in our society once this is all over.

This opinion piece was originally published in Australian Community Media newspapers 


Mr Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner