COVID-19 and human rights

In times of crisis, protecting the lives and health of our community - particularly our most vulnerable - is paramount. 

As governments have implemented increasingly restrictive measures in response to the pandemic, requiring adjustments from us in many areas of everyday life, questions about the impact on our human rights have begun to emerge.

While the actions taken by the Queensland government, in giving effect to a public health emergency declaration, are designed to limit the spread of the virus as best we can, the challenge will be to ensure that our rights are not unjustifiably limited in the process.

Human rights protections apply in a pandemic as they do otherwise. Rights can only be limited in a way that is reasonable and justifiable, and public entities must still act compatibly with human rights when they make decisions.

The Commission remains committed during this time to protecting and promoting human rights. Our physical offices are closed, but our team are working hard to continue to provide our complaint handling, training, and enquiry services. We are also working to analyse what the pandemic response means for Queenslanders, and working closely with government to ensure that the human rights of vulnerable populations are at the forefront of decision making.

In a situation the size and scope of the current pandemic, it is entirely possible that almost all the rights protected by Queensland's Human Rights Act will be affected in one way or another by this crisis and the government's response to it, although to varying degrees. Some critical issues and rights are, however, already beginning to emerge.

If you think your rights may have been limited, or that you have been subjected to discrimination or vilification, you may be able to make a complaint to us.

On this page:

Oversight of restrictions

While current restrictions would, on balance, appear to be justifiable limitations on rights in order to achieve a legitimate goal of public safety by protecting the right to life, it is vital that they do not stay in place for longer than necessary, or limit rights more severely than they need to. The Commission has initiated a register of the restrictions imposed as part of the COVID-19 response and will be monitoring their length and severity.

On 22 April, Parliament passed the COVID Emergency Response Bill 2020 on the same day it was introduced. Largely through new regulation making powers, the Bill provides for changes to many areas of Queensland law. While regulations must be made for the purposes of responding to the COVID-19 emergency, the changes are unusual in allowing such regulations to amend Acts. For example, the government may make changes to residential tenancies such as eviction moratorium and grounds on which notices to leave may be given. The changes also include potential modifications to timeframes under legislation and proceedings before courts and tribunals. Queensland Parliament has also referred inquiries into the Government’s COVID response to two Standing Committees to consider the health and economic impacts respectively. We look forward to taking part in these enquiries when timelines are announced and submissions open.

Discrimination and vilification

We are disturbed to see continued and increasing hostility towards some communities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those of Chinese or Asian heritage.

Discrimination and vilification laws remain in place and the pandemic is no excuse for racist or exclusionary behaviour. We are working with the federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, state and federal government departments and agencies, including Queensland’s Police Ethnic Advisory Group, and the community, on responding to the increasing reports of racial discrimination and vilification and strengthening our vilification laws on a state level.

If you have experienced this behaviour you may be able to make a complaint to us here at the Commission.

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Justice

The COVID-19 response is having a significant impact on the justice system, from the consequences for trials and tribunal proceedings to its effect on people in prison, youth detention and watch houses. Queensland prisons are locked down and no visitors are allowed, including family members and, in some cases, lawyers. Prison populations are at higher risk of infection due to a larger proportion of chronic health conditions amongst inmates and limited space available for distancing or isolating confirmed or suspected cases. While some jurisdictions have authorised the early release of prisoners convicted of low level offences, Queensland is yet to do so. Youth detention centres are approaching capacity and we are concerned this may lead to children and young people being once again being detained for prolonged periods in watch houses.

Child Safety

Even before the pandemic, enquiries about Child Safety constituted a significant proportion of calls to our enquiry line about human rights. Contact visits with family members, caseworkers, and Community Visitors have been limited as a result of the pandemic response, and access to the technology needed to support social connection as well as remote learning and education is limited for some children and young people in care. We are talking with Child Safety about these concerns and seeking information about when family visits may recommence.

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Health

We are closely monitoring the rights to life, recognition and equality before the law, and access to health services under the pandemic response. Queensland Health has issued statewide guidance on ethical decision-making in triaging and assessment which includes consideration of human rights for patients and health care workers.

On 22 April 2020, an inquiry into the Queensland Government’s health response to COVID-19 was referred to the Health, Communities, Disability Services and Family Violence Prevention. No timeline has been set for this inquiry as yet.

Disability

People with disability and their carers are at disproportionate risk from both the virus and the government response. Concerns have been raised about the impact of physical distancing regulations on access to support workers for people with disability, and the wellbeing of those living in closed residential facilities, most of which are now in lockdown and restricting visits from family, friends, advocates, and Community Visitors.

The Disability Information Helpline is now available on 1800 643 787 to provide information and referrals to people with disability who need help because of COVID-19. The Federal Government has also released a plan to guide the health sector response to COVID-19 for people with disability.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

There are multiple issues emerging from the pandemic response for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

First Nations people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a higher rate of chronic illness, and the social connectedness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities making physical distancing more difficult. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care face the same barriers to family contact as non-Indigenous children, which is compounded by the potential loss of connection to culture resulting from lack of contact.

Those in remote communities will face more challenges in accessing health services if and when they require them, and are also experiencing barriers to education as a result of poorer access to technology. Travel restrictions to remote communities have been imposed by the Federal Government under the Biosecurity Act 2015 to try and slow the spread of the virus to these communities.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group is meeting every fortnight during the pandemic to ensure we are across the issues as they emerge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Queensland.

Education

The right to education is limited for all Queensland children to some extent during the current phase of the pandemic, with schools closed except for the children of non-essential workers. The shift to remote learning has had a greater impact on some cohorts than others, who may find it more difficult to access the equipment and technology they need in order to study school or university content online. These groups include children and young people in foster care, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, those with disability, and those living in remote or regional areas with more limited internet access.

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Policing

As of 25 April 2020, media reported that Queensland Police had issued over 1300 fines for breaches of pandemic restrictions, most of which were issued to individuals. The Queensland Police Service has announced that all fines issued for pandemic restriction breaches will undergo a review process to ensure they were fairly issued, but no information is available on the review process at this time. We have requested more information on the review process.

Closed environments – mental health, aged care, prisons

A closed environment is one where people are not free to leave at their own volition, such as prisons, mental health wards, aged care facilities, or residential care homes for people with disability. Many of these facilities have been subject to lockdowns of varying degrees during the pandemic, resulting in visits from family, friends, advocates and others being banned arbitrarily. The denial of access to family visits can result in significant mental health concerns for people in closed environments, who are also at greater risk of infection than the general population due to the nature of the facilities and the lack of ability for suspected or confirmed cases to be fully isolated within them. Statements issued by the Queensland Premier and Chief Health Officer on 22 April 2020 detailed concern at unnecessary lockdowns in facilities like aged care, saying “there is no need for this practice to happen.” The Commission is seeking further information on lockdown practices across closed environments to gain a clearer picture of whether they are being applied fairly and equally.

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