Op Ed by Ambassador Eric Whitaker
If ever the world needed a reminder of the critical importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is it. The coronavirus knows nothing of national boundaries, race, religion, nationality, or politics. We are at risk simply because we are human. But we can – and we will – defeat this virus using the strengths that respect for human rights give us. Take freedom of expression. As individuals, we are powerless against this virus, so we warn one another by using every means of communication at our fingertips. We share vital information about the disease and its spread and sound the alarm if something (or somebody) is a threat to our communities.
Or, consider freedom of religion or belief. Individuals may seek spiritual guidance and protection from the pandemic, either individually or in community.
Then there’s the right to assemble peacefully and to freely associate. We work with others to organize efforts to support and keep safe our committed first responders and essential workers, including through online advocacy.
And, because our very lives depend on it, we expect our political leaders to tell us the truth about the challenges ahead, and to accept criticism and responsibility with humility, grace, and compassion. This is political and moral accountability. When our leaders and media share credible, timely information about risks and benefits, citizens can make informed choices about how to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors.
Without these freedoms and the accountability that comes with them, it’s impossible to develop either the medicines that will defeat this virus, or the political and financial strategies needed to repair our economies. It is government’s responsibility to protect both. Officials who choose to protect their power and pride rather than the health and welfare of their people place their own people’s health and future at risk. We know that a bright, post-pandemic future is possible if – and only if – governments listen and serve the public during this time of adversity.
Authoritarian systems, by contrast, expose their weaknesses in times of crisis. Governments that imprison or oppress those who would warn us that something is seriously amiss engage in the crudest form of denial. Governments that forbid or seek to limit publication of vital information, or to limit scientific, social, or political collaboration not only threaten the lives of their own people, but of people in other nations as well. And governments that use this pandemic to crush religious expression seen as a threat to their control suppress both the instincts of their people and a profound source of personal strength and social solidarity.
It is contrary to the very concept of human rights to suppress communication of crucial public health information. “Public safety” demands freedom and political accountability. Without that accountability, our communities put at risk. By contrast, history proves that leaders who are truly transparent, accountable, and responsive to criticism better protect the safety and flourishing of the families and communities that they serve. Democracies like Germany and the United States have been open and honest about not only the grim statistics, but also the aggressive tactics they are employing to fight the virus. Taiwan and South Korea were among the first to record infections outside of Wuhan, and quickly managed to prevent run-away outbreaks without resorting to oppression and fear.
As Americans, we are proud that our public and private sectors – in an “All of America” approach – have already marshaled resources to help the fight against COVID-19. Since the outbreak began, the U.S. government has committed $775 million in assistance. American businesses, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and individuals have given at least $3 billion in donations and assistance.
In Niger, the United States, through the Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Defense, are providing nearly $4 million to help respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. This assistance will support risk communication, infection prevention and control, and coordination. The United States government anticipates additional contributions in the coming weeks. Over the past 20 years, the United States has invested $2 billion in total assistance in Niger, including $233 million in health assistance.
There is profound wisdom in the African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Our American communities face the same suffering and the same challenges as yours. We will overcome this crisis by reaffirming that which makes us human and free: honest and transparent communication, creative collaboration, and genuine accountability to our loved ones and communities.