American Sociological Association

Section on Sociology of Human Rights

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

The Sociology of Human Rights and COVID-19 (Sociology of Human Rights)

Annie Isabel Fukushima, University of Utah
Joachim J. Savelsberg, University of Minnesota

Four axioms show the effect of the COVID-19 situation on human rights and the relevance of the sociology of human rights in the current era. Each axiom is followed by U.S. (Fukushima) and global (Savelsberg) illustrations.

(1) According to philosophers and international covenants, all humans may be endowed with rights, but actualized rights are always the result of social struggle. A pandemic (and responses) shift the balance of power between different players in this struggle.

 U.S.: As states and cities have issued “shelter-in-place” policies, disaster capitalism took hold of communities—empty food shelves in markets and privileged classes sheltering in place as “essential workers” risked their lives. Rosalinda Fregoso’s theory of “pluriversality opens our worldview to other possibilities for the human, ethics, and human rights imaginaries.” Therefore, we need an engagement of rights beyond the individualisms that also reconciles a human right practice beyond legality and the state.

Global: International and local NGOs are driving forces in the struggle for human rights. Economic downturns threaten their funding and weaken their voice in struggles over human rights. Around the globe, executive branches of government are strengthened at the expense of judicial and legislative branches. Political leaders are tempted to undermine all rights under the pretense of seeking to protect human lives, and some seize the opportunity eagerly. A weakening of human rights is the likely outcome. Economic uncertainties, and resulting strife, further contribute to this prospect. Political sociologists and sociologists of human rights should collaborate on these issues. Strategies and instruments such as the Minnesota Human Rights Model, designed to strengthen human rights in times of global challenges, become more relevant.  

(2) Different types of human rights (civil, political, economic, cultural) are interdependent. 

U.S.: As civil societies consider the right to water and sanitation, this right cannot be disaggregated from the lived realities that not all communities have access to clean water (e.g., Flint Michigan and indigenous communities). This inequity is deeply tied to racism, economic inequalities, and civil rights. Therefore, COVID-19 is teaching us that not only are rights interdependent, but to be actualized, they necessitate collective responsibility.

Global: In a world with 70 million people living in refugee and internally displaced person camps, the most basic (civil) right to life can barely be secured if these refugees are deprived of the (economic) right to water and basic hygiene. Similarly, hundreds of millions living in favelas, slums, shantytowns and other crowded settlements, already facing shortened life expectancies, see their right to life further undermined because of deprivations of economic rights.

(3) Different rights may be in conflict with each other, and a balancing of rights is required. 

U.S.: “Rights for living” are a remote reality for the incarcerated and detained, contrasting sharply with those who are able to isolate by choice. Conditions for people incarcerated in Louisiana’s jails have been described as “jammed together like sardines,” and U.S. detention centers are overcrowded with poor sanitation. While some have the right to life, for the detained, the incarcerated, marginalized communities of color, and the poor, “they don’t care if you die” is all too real. 

Global: Restrictions to the right to move about or to the economic right to work may be necessary to secure the right to life. They constitute breaches of human rights nonetheless, and deprivation of these rights likely results in loss of human life as well. Many governments across the globe seek the help of teams of epidemiologists, economists, sociologists, ethicists and those in other disciplines to consider how best to strike the balance. Institutions and processes warrant close scholarly and political scrutiny.

(4) The impact of natural catastrophes such as epidemics is class-specific. 

U.S.: (Im)mobility exposes the varied experiences during the global pandemic, where the modern colonial capitalist system makes apparent the failures of the state to uphold rights. To date, 36 million people have filed for unemployment. This is coupled with workers considered “essential”— such as farmworkers, medical providers, first responders, janitors, food industry and essential service workers — risking their lives, with many facing unsafe working conditions.

Global: Global inequalities always limit the realization of basic human rights in poorer countries. In times of pandemic, access to testing, space for preventive measures and supply of medical care are unevenly distributed across the globe. When pandemics cost many lives in wealthy nations, the loss will be manifold more terrifying in poorer ones. Most basic human rights are at stake.