COVID-19 and the Risks to Human Rights: What History Shows Us

Professor Eric D. Weitz and his book "A World Divided" (Photos courtesy of Princeton University Press)

Professor Eric D. Weitz’s new book, A World Divided, offers lessons from history that illuminate our current crisis.  

What if our response to COVID-19 was shaped not just by science, but also by concerns about human rights? How would that change protocols and outcomes? That thought-provoking set of questions emerged from an interview with Professor Eric D. Weitz (GC/City College, History) about his recent book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. The book was published before the pandemic, but it offers lessons from history that illuminate our current crisis. 

“COVID-19 has revealed more starkly some features of our politics and society that were already in plain sight,” Weitz said. “First are the great and grave inequalities within the United States and between the Global North and the Global South. Second is the incompetence and incapacity of the United States government.”

Forty years of disinvestment in public health and other services — thanks to ideologues who prize free market forces above all else — has left the U.S. government “incapable of coordinating a national response to a pandemic that knows no national, state, or county borders,” Weitz said. COVID-19 “is not the great equalizer, as some people have claimed.” Working-class and poor people experience higher rates of infection and unemployment, as well as “greater personal risk” if they work in places like grocery stores and meat-processing plants that keep “the rest of us supplied with the essentials of life.” 

If human rights were considered alongside science and medicine in the fight to stem COVID-19, it “would mean a significant reshaping of American politics toward greater social equality and more effective governance.” 

That line of thinking relates directly to what Weitz calls “the key issue” animating A World Divided: “Who has the right to have rights?” Rights were first “proclaimed for propertied white men,” then “demanded by slave rebels, women, working people, and many other marginalized groups.” While the book “challenges any simple explanation for the advancement of human rights,” Weitz writes that the expansion of these rights over time demonstrates long-term progress and “remains our best hope for the future.” 

The book explores the history of human rights since the late 18th century by telling a different story in each chapter, “from Greek rebels, Euroamerican settlers, and Brazilian abolitionists in the 19th century to anticolonial Africans and Zionists in the 20th, and many others,” he said. “I wanted to capture the variety of modern political and economic systems, from republic to empire, slavery to socialism, colonialism to communism.” 

He also documents a grim pattern of nationalists establishing new states only to restrict rights for other groups, whether Native American, Jewish, Armenian, Palestinian, or Tutsi. “There is no utopia,” he said. “But we need to recognize the advances as well as the shortcomings and disasters over the last 250 years.”

As for the immediate future, the ramifications of our current crisis on politics and human rights aren’t clear. “Even before COVID-19 hit, democracy was on the wane around the world and human rights seemed to be in the retreat in contrast to the important advances of the 1990s,” Weitz said. “The surge of right-wing populism around the globe is deeply worrisome, as is the chasm of inequality” that now exists. Hopefully, he said, “we will see some major policy shifts in the direction of social equality and competent, humane governance.” 

Submitted on: MAY 7, 2020

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