Coronavirus may further erode the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, warns leading global lawyer


  • If left unchecked, urgent global lockdowns may dilute government accountability and erode human rights and civil liberties worldwide, says former Solicitor General of India
  • Judiciaries worldwide must stay on high alert to ensure that governments are not overstepping their constitutional boundaries at a time when many courts are in a state of semi-closure
  • The impact of the virus will be felt worst by the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society – and steps need to be undertaken to ensure that their healthcare rights are upheld and protected
  • In India specifically, this pandemic may be a watershed moment for healthcare rights – and should trigger a nationwide discussion about fair and equal access to healthcare across the country

If left unchecked, urgent global lockdowns may dilute government accountability

London, UK – Gopal Subramanium, former Solicitor General of India, has warned that coronavirus poses a critical threat to the human rights and civil liberties of the world’s most marginalised and underrepresented communities. The stark warning marks his first public intervention since the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic worldwide.

Subramanium warns that the urgent lockdowns in the UK, India and worldwide may – if left unchecked – dilute government accountability and threaten people’s freedoms, human rights and civil liberties at a time when access to justice has been restricted by the semi-closure of courts. He has urged judiciaries worldwide to stay on high alert to ensure that governments are not overstepping their constitutional boundaries.

Subramanium goes on to stress that the pandemic and lockdowns will have a disproportionate impact on the lives, physical and mental health, and well-being of the most vulnerable people in society, highlighting that these communities generally have fewer healthcare options, more limited access to information, and generally work in jobs that put them at more risk of catching COVID-19. He has urged the global legal community to take steps to ensure that the rights of these people are properly protected over the coming months.

Speaking specifically about India, Subramanium says that the pandemic may be a watershed moment for the country, shining a light on the levels of healthcare inequality in the country and prompting national calls for further steps towards providing better healthcare, disinfected water, and well-maintained sanitation facilities to marginalised communities. While the healthcare system is universal in India, there is a big discrepancy in the quality and coverage of medical treatment between rural and urban areas, and lack of adequate coverage means that many Indians turn to private healthcare providers.

Speaking about threats to civil liberties globally, Gopal Subramanium said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to very serious challenges in decision making all over the world. Countries that are not governed by democratic principles have found it easier to impose very stringent lockdowns, suspend rights and invoke emergency provisions. people in these countries cannot protest against, nor voice their objections to executive action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to very serious challenges in decision making all over the world.

“Thankfully, constitutional protections in democracies, such as the UK and India,make it imperative for the executive to justify its actions and makes executive action susceptible to judicial review. But it is essential that the urgent nature of the lockdowns do not allow global governments to escape the need to explain their measures and nor allow them to overstep the boundaries of their authority.

“We must not allow the pandemic to overlook the need for supremacy of the individual, the need for non-discriminatory treatment and the need for effective decentralisation and constant accountability of units of the government. The courts have treated COVID-19 as an effective de facto emergency. The lockdown must not mean that there has been a suspension of democracy.”

“Global judiciaries have a key role in this regard in holding governments and their measures to account. For any nation, apart from a healthy electoral process, an independent judiciary and an analytical and free press are critical attributes for the nation to sustain its democratic nature. Once these attributes show signs of fading, the nation ceases to be a true democracy.”

Speaking about the impact on disadvantaged communities in India, Gopal Subramanium said:

“The circumstances of the pandemic have had the effect of denying the right to life and livelihood to those whose work is such that it cannot be continued over any electronic medium. Additionally, the manner of lockdown imposed makes it impossible for some to access the institutions of democracy – many people who do not have access to the technological means and resources cannot access constitutional courts as the physical functioning of courts is currently suspended.

“On top of this, in some areas of the country, the tools for gathering information are so limited that information can only be received from those areas and people who are electronically connected. This leads to a severe lack of informed decision making as the democratic heads are often unable to gather information about or from the most vulnerable areas.

“The result is that the impact of coronavirus and the lockdown has disproportionately fallen on the most vulnerable of society. We must encourage governance that embraces compassion and the humanistic approach our constitution demands as we confront the various forms of inequality created by COVID-19.

“What does this mean? This should prompt a broader discussion about access to healthcare to India’s most vulnerable. The deadly contradictions involved in access to private healthcare – where some people are accorded better healthcare than others – must be worked out by Central and State Governments effectively for the future. The need to have clean disinfected water and well-maintained sanitation facilities cannot be under-emphasised. In the health sector, a degree of social ownership and democratisation may be necessary.”

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