Human Rights and the COVID-19 Pandemic



Anthony Ewing, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum
Lecturer, Columbia Law School

Jamie O’Connell, Lecturer in Residence, Stanford Law School

Nina Gardner, Adjunct Lecturer in International Law,
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)


The novel coronavirus COVID-19, first identified in China in December 2019 and declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020,[1] has infected more than 8.4 million people worldwide and killed over 450,000 individuals to date.[2] The human rights impacts of the pandemic are widespread, ongoing, and multidimensional. In addition to the direct health impacts, government efforts to stem the spread of the virus, such as travel bans, mandatory business closures, and stay-at-home orders, have had an economic impact estimated to result in some 200 million lost jobs.[3] Global per capita income is expected to fall by four percent this year due to the pandemic, threatening to reverse human development indicators for the first time in 30 years.[4]

By applying a business and human rights (BHR) lens to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers can highlight the relevance of human rights to business operations and illuminate how international human rights standards, as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs),[5] should guide business enterprises as they address the pandemic. Critically assessing corporate responses to the pandemic is an opportunity for students to survey business practices available to manage human rights impacts. Considering the role of the private sector in pandemic response allows teachers to explore public health policy approaches and the respective responsibilities of government and business enterprises.

“Observing the [COVID-19] crisis and its impact through a human rights lens puts a focus on how it is affecting people on the ground, particularly the most vulnerable among us, and what can be done about it now, and in the long term.”
– United Nations[6]

Human Rights Impacts

The actual and potential human rights impacts of the pandemic include all human rights, ranging from the rights to health and to education, to labor rights, to freedom from discrimination, the right to privacy, and civil and political rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic potentially affects everyone’s right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and to a standard of living adequate for health and well being, including medical care. The disparate racial, ethnic and demographic impacts of the pandemic raise concerns of unlawful discrimination universally prohibited by international human rights standards. The failure of states and other organs of society to adequately protect vulnerable groups, such as healthcare workers and institutionalized individuals, affects the right to health and potentially affects an individual’s right to life. (For example, in many countries, the vast majority of nurses are women.[7]) Inaccessible water and sanitation, inadequate housing, and extreme poverty exacerbate the risk to individuals of contracting COVID-19.

Pandemic responses create human rights risks beyond the direct impact of exposure to the virus. Acts of bias and pandemic-related stigma violate victims’ right to freedom from discrimination. Women and children are vulnerable to a higher risk of domestic violence when they are unable to leave home or seek assistance because of the pandemic. The closure of schools worldwide adversely affects the right to education.[8] Policy measures that limit freedom of movement or mandate disclosure of personal health information limit the rights to association and to privacy. Governments that seek to silence journalists and healthcare workers are restricting freedom of expression and access to public health information.[9] Authoritarian regimes are using the guise of pandemic response to further restrict civil and political rights.[10] Human rights defenders are similarly under threat during the pandemic.

“A key issue, as we have seen from recent developments, is to be on the alert to growing risks to civic freedoms and human rights defenders.”
– UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights[11]

The economic and social disruption wrought by the pandemic threatens the livelihoods and endangers the rights of millions of workers.[12] Low-wage workers in low-income households, individuals unable to work remotely, and workers in the informal sector are among the populations most vulnerable to the pandemic. Workplace health and safety, the availability of paid sick leave, factory closures and supply chain disruptions are all pandemic-related issues with clear human rights impacts.

Inequality and discrimination render particular groups especially vulnerable to secondary effects of COVID-19, as well as its direct effects on health. Undocumented immigrants in the United States are ineligible for unemployment benefits. Children appear to suffer less severe cases of COVID-19 than adults – but are the victims of human rights violations, such as any misuse of their personal data by educational applications and programs that schools require them to use for remote learning. 

These examples of pandemic human rights impacts are necessarily incomplete. Every human right identified in international standards is potentially affected, directly or indirectly, by the global pandemic.

International Standards

Relevant international human rights standards include those defined in the International Bill of Human Rights (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)), regional instruments such as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the American Convention on Human Rights,  International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Students applying these international instruments to the COVID-19 pandemic may focus on provisions defining the right to health and access to health care, such as Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 12 of the ICESCR – the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has elaborated this right, noting that:

“[H]ealth facilities, goods, and services should be: available in sufficient quantity; accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, even marginalized groups; acceptable, meaning respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate; and scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality.”[13]

Of particular relevance for considering the rights-compatibility of pandemic responses are permissible restrictions on rights allowed in times of public emergency. The ICCPR, for example, states:

“In time of public emergency . . .  States may take measures . . . to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation . . .  and do not involve discrimination . . .  .” (Art. 4)

The UN Human Rights Committee has commented that any measures that limit people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. States of emergency need to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups.[14]

The Siracusa Principles,[15] adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, state that restrictions should, at a minimum, be: “provided for and carried out in accordance with the law; directed toward a legitimate objective of general interest; strictly necessary in a democratic society to achieve the objective; the least intrusive and restrictive available to reach the objective; based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application; and of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.”

Article 15 of the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – known as the “derogation clause” – provides States the option to derogate from their obligations under the Convention and international law in times of emergency in a limited and supervised manner:

“In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under [the] Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.”[16]

European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence provides guidance on the limits to a State’s derogation authority that could be useful to professors teaching with a more European focus. For example, the European Court will give appropriate weight to factors such as “the nature of the rights affected by the derogation, the circumstances leading to, and the duration of, the emergency situation (Brannigan and McBride v. the United Kingdom, § 43; A. and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC],§ 173).” [17]

Article 9 of the recent European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) explicitly prohibits the “Processing of personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, or trade union membership, and the processing of genetic data, biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying a natural person, data concerning health or data concerning a natural person’s sex life or sexual orientation,” but in section 2 (i) states that these restrictions would be lifted “for reasons of public interest in the area of public health, such as protecting against serious cross-border threats to health …”[18] (in addition to other exceptions).

Art 23 of the GDPR then addresses the issue of potential overreach by EU member states regarding the use of their citizens’ data — citing that any restrictions of these data privacy rights “must respect the essence of fundamental rights and freedoms and be necessary and proportionate,” [19] meaning that there must be a pressing social need to adopt these legal instruments and that they must be proportionate to the pursued legitimate aim.

The European Data Protection Board, whose job it is to ensure application of the data protection rules, has been monitoring the state of emergency measures being taken by EU members in response to the pandemic. On March 19 the Board released a statement regarding the processing of personal data in the context of COVID-19 stating that “the GDPR allows competent public health authorities and employers to process personal data in the context of an epidemic, in accordance with national law and within the conditions set therein,”[20] but that “the guarantees provided for under Article 23(2) of the GDPR must fully apply, in particular when it comes to the need to have specific provisions as to the purposes of the processing, the categories of personal data, the scope of the restrictions, the safeguards to prevent abuse or unlawful access or transfer, the specification of the controller or categories of controllers concerned or the risks to the rights and freedoms of data subjects.” [21]

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), emphasizing that “the pandemic and its consequences accentuate the importance of compliance with and observance of international obligations in the area of human rights,” has recommended that States “take immediate steps, with all due diligence, to prevent harm to the right to health, personal safety and life.”[22] The Commission notes that any rights restrictions must meet international legal requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality and timeliness and that “measures . . . that may result in restrictions on rights or guarantees, should follow the pro persona principle, and the principles of proportionality, and temporary basis, and should have as their legitimate purpose strict compliance with comprehensive public health and protection objectives . . . .” [23] Responding to reports of attacks against human rights defenders in the context of emergency measures taken by countries around the region, the Inter-American Commission has subsequently reminded “States that they have an obligation to protect the lives and personal integrity of human rights defenders when these are at risk, even if such risk stems from the actions of non-State actors. This obligation becomes particularly relevant during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when defenders face increased risks given emergency measures that restrict, among others, their freedom of movement.”[24]

All member states of the International Labour Organization have an obligation to “respect, promote, and realize” the fundamental rights contained in the eight core ILO conventions.[25] (See International Labor Rights.) Additional labor standards relevant to the human rights impacts of pandemic response include standards for unemployment benefits, occupational health and safety, and paid sick leave, as well as those contained in occupation-specific labor conventions for nurses and for maritime, migrant, and domestic workers, among others.[26] ILO Recommendation (No. 205) on Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience, adopted in 2017, emphasizes that crisis responses need to ensure respect for all human rights and the rule of law.[27]

Teachers can apply the UN Guiding Principles, a core component of most BHR courses, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each pillar – “protect, respect and remedy” – of the UNGPs (see Introducing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) offers relevant guidance for states and business enterprises responding to the current pandemic.

“The pandemic will eventually pass. States and business actors must use this moment to not revert to business as usual, but to forge a new normal based upon the globally agreed standard provided by the Guiding Principles.”
– UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights [28]

Corporate Responsibilities

Teachers can apply a BHR lens by defining corporate responsibilities to respect human rights during a pandemic and assessing business enterprise responses to COVID-19 against best practice human rights impact management.

The UN Guiding Principles, for example, call on companies to “avoid causing or contributing to ‘adverse human rights impacts’ through their own activities” and to “seek to prevent or mitigate” those “directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships.”[29] To meet their responsibility, companies must “know and show that they respect human rights.”[30] To operationalize respect for human rights, companies should make policy commitments; conduct human rights due diligence; and act to prevent, mitigate and/or remediate actual and potential human rights impacts connected to their business activities and relationships.[31] Business enterprises should also participate in “effective operational-level grievance mechanisms” for victims.[32]

“[R]ead as a whole, it is clear that the UNGPs expect businesses to undertake due diligence and assess impacts of their operations and conduct in terms of respect for all rights, including the right to health; to take all possible steps to mitigate any harms; to ensure that conduct does not cause or contribute towards harms; address risks identified as salient; and to enable the realisation of all rights, including the right to health, by using all forms of available leverage.”[33]

The African Commission on Human and  Peoples’ Rights stated early in the pandemic that “The private sector carries a responsibility proportional to its socio-economic power and influence to contribute to the measures for prevention and containment including through the contribution of resources.”[34]

Each of the UN Guiding Principles can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. How are business enterprises defining their responsibilities during the pandemic? Are human rights commitments reflected in corporate policies governing pandemic response? Are companies carrying out human rights due diligence to better understand the human rights impacts of the pandemic connected to their activities and relationships? What can business enterprises do to prevent and mitigate the human rights impacts of the pandemic? How are companies adapting grievance mechanisms to address pandemic impacts?

“Human rights due diligence is key to ensuring that any risks to people are identified and mitigated. This includes taking adequate preventive measures to ensure the health and safety of workers. For companies’ own workers it means protecting them from risks when asking them to continue working, and ensuring fundamental guarantees, such as paid sick leave, and providing safety gear and equipment to them.”[35]

“As companies face the global pandemic, they need to assess how their new reality changes the human rights risks connected to their business. There is no single way to identify COVID-19 impacts. Rather, businesses need to tailor their assessments to their context, industry and value chains.”[36]

Considering actual company pandemic responses allows students to apply a BHR analysis to the real-time challenge facing business enterprises.

Sector Responses

The current pandemic affects every industry sector. Teachers can productively examine any business enterprise, sector, or geography for human rights impacts, examples, and case studies to illustrate in the classroom how businesses are responding to the pandemic in ways that respect, or fail to respect, human rights. Below, we briefly consider six representative sectors that align well with BHR curricula.


The experience of business enterprises in the healthcare sector can serve as a particular focus of BHR teaching given their unique role in the pandemic as frontline providers of treatment to COVID-19 patients; employers of healthcare workers; developers of diagnostic tests, treatments and potential vaccines; and manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

Key issues include: protecting the health of patients and employees; addressing discriminatory health outcomes and health care access; ensuring equitable affordability and availability of tests, treatments and eventual vaccines; and the long-term impact of the pandemic on the healthcare sector worldwide.

The U.S. pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, for example, faces scrutiny over the potential pricing and accessibility of an experimental coronavirus treatment that the company sought to monopolize before COVID-19 cases escalated.[37]


Global apparel brands face BHR considerations as they manage the effects of severe recession in many markets. The collapse of consumer demand for non-essential goods, including clothing, presents a nearly existential business challenge for many. Spending at U.S. clothing stores dropped approximately seventy-five percent in the year to April 2020, and fast fashion stores such as Zara and H&M saw even sharper falls.[38] That behavior appeared common across the globe: A May 2020 McKinsey study found that consumers in all twelve large countries surveyed, in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, expected to spend less than usual on apparel in the following two weeks, in most by at least thirty percent.[39]

Brands have responded by canceling orders, causing factories (most in developing countries) to lay off workers.[40] By mid-June 2020, an ongoing study by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre had found that UK retailers had cancelled £2.5 billion in orders from factories in Bangladesh alone, and that 75,000 workers in that country had not been paid wages for March.[41] (By contrast, Swedish multinational clothing company H&M announced that it would take delivery of and pay for garments produced by its suppliers under previously agreed payment terms and prices.[42]) The flexibility of the global garment production system, a key to the rapid delivery and low costs that brands seek, comes at the cost of security for the most vulnerable workers in the supply chain.

Activists have protested these actions,[43] while multistakeholder initiatives have offered principles to guide brands’ responses to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. The Fair Labor Association released new recommendations for affiliated companies that applied its existing Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing and Production to the new situation. It urged companies to cancel orders “only as a last resort,” pay for any orders on which production had started, ensure that any workers laid off by their suppliers received any legally mandated severance, and try to identify and inform workers about available government financial support, such as unemployment benefits.[44]

Protecting factory workers from infection with COVID-19 at work presents a second human rights issue for factories and, by extension, brands. Advocates have argued that both are responsible for adapting factories to this new health risk, including by providing masks and rearranging workstations to increase distance between workers.[45] (These issues arise in facilities for many other industries, as well.[46])


COVID-19 hit employees of retail stores in two contrasting ways. Many were furloughed or lost their jobs as stores were required to close to protect public health. Those working in “essential” sectors that were allowed to remain open, such as grocery and hardware stores, risked exposure to the virus borne by co-workers and customers. Customers’ risk of infection is smaller because they spend less time in stores, but might become significant if stores reopened and customers saw shopping as a leisure activity before the virus was controlled.  

Public health authorities in many countries ordered retail stores selling clothing, books, toys, and other “non-essential” goods to close to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many individual retail stores and chains were already precarious. U.S. department store chains J.C. Penney and Nieman Marcus and apparel chain J. Crew have filed for bankruptcy since the pandemic began.[47] In the United Kingdom, high street stores had already shed 85,000 jobs by 2018.[48]

Retailers have furloughed or laid off hundreds of thousands of employees.[49] Some European countries have provided financial support to businesses to keep their staff employed, but U.S. efforts to prevent layoffs have been more modest.[50] The dramatic drop in consumer demand for those goods may also have contributed to job losses,[51] although it is possible that the remaining demand may have maintained sales levels for businesses that remained open, in person or online. Patagonia initially kept paying its employees after voluntarily closing all of its U.S. stores, but furloughed eighty percent of its retail staff for ninety days after losing half its sales in two months. It did continue to pay their health benefits, however.[52]

Protecting employees and customers has presented a second human rights challenge for retailers. In regions that shut down non-essential retail stores at the height of the pandemic, those that remained open, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, had to act urgently, and despite shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment. Some installed plexiglass shields at checkout stands, provided hand sanitizer, and required employees–and in some cases customers–to wear face masks. Some failed to provide masks and other basic protection for their employees, however.

In the United States, many retail stores do not provide paid sick leave to front-line workers, such as checkout and stock clerks. Early in the pandemic, advocates pointed out that this situation could put customers–as well as employees themselves–at risk, if COVID-19 infected employees came to work. Several retail chains, including Walmart and Trader Joe’s, expanded their sick leave and health insurance benefits in response, although some critics found these initiatives inadequate.[53] Soon thereafter, the U.S. Congress mandated that certain employers provide two weeks of paid sick leave for employees with COVID-19.[54]  


Financial services companies are considering the human rights impacts of temporary measures adopted to provide economic relief to clients and customers, such as payment deferrals, credit extensions, and interest forbearance. Investors are scrambling to deal with the effects of the economic uncertainty and turbulence.[55] The pandemic and its economic consequences have strengthened the case that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) risks are indeed financial risks, as well as the argument that companies that identify and address their material ESG risks will be more resilient in market downturns.[56] Sustainable indices and investment products have outperformed their broader market counterparts globally in the first quarter of 2020.[57]

Key issues include many of the much overlooked ‘S’ issues: employment conditions; social safety nets and access to health services; the importance of stakeholder engagement and human rights due diligence; ensuring nondiscriminatory access to financial relief and services; and reevaluating investment risk and corporate resilience models. According to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, “The societal role of corporations has been illuminated like never before, and we expect business will go to those companies deemed to have done the right thing by their employees, customers and communities in this most trying of times.”[58] This quote ties nicely into early BHR class discussions regarding Milton Friedman and the role of the corporation. (See also Banks and Human Rights)

An interesting development to monitor for those teaching in 2021, will be the number of human rights-related shareholder resolutions and their success during the 2021 proxy season. The example of Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN) (the meatpacking plants turned into COVID hotspots due to terrible working conditions, and the lack of protective gear, adequate spacing, or testing for workers) will be a company to watch. Sustainable and responsible investors have directed resolutions for the past two years specifically asking the company to report on its “human rights due diligence process to assess, identify, prevent mitigate, and remedy actual and potential human rights impacts.”[59] This resolution garnered a mere 14.59% interest February 6, 2020, prior to the COVID outbreak. Had the 2020 shareholder meeting been held a few months later, the result might have been vastly different. It is reasonable to expect that for the 2021 proxy voting season there will be heightened scrutiny regarding the ‘S’ in ‘ESG,’ with a rise in resolutions and voting margins regarding human rights due diligence — specifically focused on human capital and impact assessments on the use or misuse of data privacy, among other issues.


Companies in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector present useful case studies for the application of technology to COVID-19 pandemic response. Students can assess both the positive and negative human rights impacts of the pandemic responses deployed by internet, software, social media, and telecommunications companies worldwide.

Key issues include: protecting the health of employees and communities; considering the privacy impacts of geolocation tracking and facial recognition;[60] addressing the discriminatory impacts of artificial intelligence; assessing potential complicity with government actors; ensuring equitable access to online resources and digital education; and advocating for appropriate government policies to protect public health.

Controversial startup Clearview A.I. Inc., for example, which supplies facial-recognition technology to police departments, is seeking to track COVID-19 patients.[61] The automated smartphone contact tracing application developed jointly by Apple and Google faces scrutiny by human rights advocates for its potential privacy and government surveillance impacts.[62]


The global pandemic presents an issue with clear and immediate impacts connected to university students’ own lives. Students have likely experienced the physical closing of educational institutions; concerns over themselves, family, and friends contracting COVID-19; and the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.

While not fitting the business enterprise paradigm exactly, asking students to apply a human rights lens to the often diverse and complex operations of a university, can give students new perspectives on business and human rights frameworks and tools. Large universities may also include medical schools and hospitals responding to the pandemic. Human rights considerations for educational institutions include: protecting the health of students, faculty, and staff; ensuring nondiscriminatory access to education and university resources;[63] and balancing the needs of employees and institutional financial pressures.

University examples can engage students in meaningful ways, much like the historical BHR issues surrounding university divestment from companies operating in Apartheid South Africa, or ensuring minimum labor standards in the factories making university-licensed apparel, catalyzed previous generations of BHR students.

Government Action

The COVID-19 pandemic places a spotlight on government efforts to protect public health and other rights affected by the novel coronavirus and public and private responses to it, including through laws, regulations, contracting, and public policies. Governments have a duty to respect human rights themselves, and to protect individuals from violations of their rights by third parties, including businesses.[64]  Teachers can ask students to assess the human rights impacts of governmental pandemic response, with particular attention to pandemic policies affecting the private sector. How should governments regulate businesses in relation to COVID-19? How else should human rights shape governments’ interaction with business around COVID-19? These questions can help students apply Pillar I of the UN Guiding Principles (Principles 1-10), which details governments’ responsibilities in relation to business and human rights. (It may also stimulate students’ thinking about the roles of companies and businesses to how government failures to respond adequately to COVID-19 might affect the responsibilities of companies, as advocates or actors, promoting public health policies and human rights protections beyond their own activities and relationships?)

UN Guiding Principle 1 sets out states’ duty to protect against human rights violations by third parties such as businesses, including by preventing, investigating, punishing, and redressing abuses. During the worst of the pandemic, governments in many countries have protected the right to health by closing businesses to safeguard employees  and customers, as well as the public at large, which benefits from slowing the spread of infection. Many have required businesses to follow safety protocols once they reopen, such as masking employees and customers, and enforcing social distancing. (These protocols also exemplify the “effective guidance to businesses on how to respect human rights throughout their operations” that UN Guiding Principle 3(c) urges states to provide.)

Regional human rights institutions have reinforced  those norms during the pandemic. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued extensive recommendations to governments on respecting and protecting human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. These included that governments “[r]equire that businesses respect human rights, adopt due diligence processes in the area of human rights, and hold themselves accountable for possible abuses of and negative impacts on human rights….”[65] The Commission affirmed that “[b]usinesses have a pivotal role to play in these situations, and their conduct must be guided by applicable human rights principles and rules.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has urged governments to “[r]egulate private actors involved in social services delivery so that their involvement do not worsen the situation for individuals, families and communities.”[66]

Many states have delivered emergency financial support to businesses hit by COVID-19. The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has stated:

“As governments are scrambling to extend a financial lifeline to struggling businesses, they should also remember the need to build and protect resilience for workers and to ensure that they put human rights at the centre of responses. … [A]ny financial support or bailouts to businesses should come with a clear requirement to commit to complying with standards for responsible business conduct, notably respect for human rights and dignity of people – ensuring that workers are not put at health and safety risk, are allowed sick leave with pay, and not exploited with the justification of crisis and emergency.”[67]

States have collaborated with businesses to respond to COVID-19 and encouraged them to address its human rights impacts. For example, the UK government created a “rap[id response” unit to work with social media companies on combating misinformation about the disease.[68] The German government sponsored a “We v. Virus hackathon” in which 28,000 programmers, including from companies,worked on 1,500 proposals for addressing various aspects of the pandemic.[69] A European Parliament resolution on COVID-19 urged companies to undertake human rights and environmental due diligence “to prevent and mitigate future crises and ensure sustainable value chains.”[70]  

The UN Guiding Principles urge states to ensure “policy coherence,” meaning that their laws, policies, and activity in one area–such as laws regulating the creation of corporations–should not contradict their human rights responsibilities.[71]  An April 2020 statement by the UN Working Group illustrated this principle by prescribing that “[a]s governments procure large amounts of medical and protective equipment, they should be doing so by choosing businesses that respect worker rights and are not benefitting from the use of forced or child labour in their supply chains.”[72]

Governments must attend to human rights issues arising from their relationships with business suppliers, including in contracts for services (Guiding Principle 5) and other commercial transactions (Guiding Principle 6). In the United States, privately run prisons and detention facilities that contract with federal and state governments may not be protecting detainees from the spread of COVID-19 or giving adequate care to the sick.[73] Governments that contract with private companies to develop technology for tracing contacts of people infected with COVID-19 and other important public health functions have a responsibility to ensure that those applications respect the right to privacy.[74] Children’s privacy is a concern where schools use commercial technology to facilitate remote learning, such as with Zoom for student-teacher videoconferences, Google Drive for collaborative work, and a wide variety of educational games.[75]


An important public policy issue that will gain attention as the crisis progresses is whether effective remedies are available to individuals affected by the adverse human rights impacts of the pandemic, including those connected to business. Pillar III of the UN Guiding Principles (UN Guiding Principles 25 through 30) affirms that states must take appropriate steps, through “judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means” to ensure remedies for business-related human rights violations.

Examples of potential remedies include lawsuits for wrongful termination of employees dissatisfied with workplace health and safety conditions; civil and criminal liability of business enterprises for COVID-related abuses; and legislation that holds companies accountable for the adverse impacts of their pandemic responses.[76]

Teaching Approaches

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for students to apply BHR frameworks to a real-life, real-time issue. One important choice is whether to teach BHR approaches to COVID-19 as a discrete module or to sprinkle consideration of the pandemic throughout an existing BHR course by drawing connections between the pandemic’s impacts and many topics already included in the syllabus. Teachers can focus closely on a single rights dimension of the pandemic, such as its impact on the right to health, or broadly on the full range of rights affected by the pandemic. Case studies of corporate responses to the pandemic may be developed for the classroom based on the experience of any industry sector. Many considerations may affect these choices, including whether the instructor judges that other topics could be cut to make space for COVID-19, their capacity to develop a new unit, and students’ subjective sense of COVID-19’s relevance to them and their communities at the time the course is taught. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting physical closure of many universities worldwide has forced many BHR teachers to move their existing courses online and to teach remotely for the first time. (See Resources for Teaching Classes Remotely) Members of the Teaching BHR Forum teaching during the pandemic have begun to experiment with ways to address COVID-19 in existing BHR and other courses.

Jamie O’Connell’s undergraduate BHR course at Stanford University used COVID-19 to help students map human rights risks and analyze factors affecting business decisions that affect human rights. It also provided an opportunity for students to use familiar academic methods–research, writing, and classroom discussion–to make sense of some of the many ways in which the pandemic was upending the world around them. Working at their option individually or in pairs, students prepared memos for the class on particular human rights issues or industries. The students considered three sets of issues:

1) The human rights impacts of COVID-19 related to the issue or industry,
2) Businesses’ actual and possible responses to those impacts (e.g., mitigation measures), and
3) The operational, economic, political, and other factors that seemed to be shaping those responses.

The instructor assigned a topic to each student or team. The topics included: the right to education, economic recession (e.g., layoffs and job insecurity), workplace health and safety, technology and privacy, and the right to health. The students were not expected to cover all issues, but rather to focus on those that could yield the richest classroom discussion on their assigned topic. Setting expectations was important, as the novelty of COVID-19–the first pandemic with significant social and economic effects across the globe–meant there was, as yet, little secondary research on which students could draw.

The memos served as the reading assignment for a class session on COVID-19. The writing assignment required each memo to conclude with a few questions that the class might discuss. Students are unaccustomed to thinking about pedagogy; the purpose of this portion of the assignment was to make them more aware of the learning process and perhaps thereby more active in shaping class discussion to fit their developmental needs–in the COVID-19 session and subsequent ones on other topics.

Law courses can use the COVID-19 pandemic and its human rights impacts to teach international human rights standards, to apply the UNGPs to corporate practice, and to consider available tools to hold business enterprises accountable for their actions in pandemic response.

In his business and human rights seminar at Columbia Law School, for example, Anthony Ewing devoted one online class session in April 2020 to an exercise that applies a BHR lens to the pandemic. The exercise took place toward the end of the semester, after students were already familiar with human rights standards and the UN Guiding Principles, BHR cases from different industry sectors, and business practices like human rights impact assessments. To open the class, the instructor asked students to list actual and potential human rights impacts of COVID-19. Seminar participants, a mixture of J.D., LL.M and international affairs students, produced a representative list ranging from the right to health to the right to privacy. After identifying relevant international law standards and discussing criteria for rights restrictions during public emergencies, the instructor asked each student to pick a specific business enterprise: a hospital system, a pharmaceutical company, a university, or a retail establishment like Amazon/Whole Foods. For the enterprise they selected, he asked students to consider three questions:

1) How are the human rights the class listed linked to that business?
2) If you were advising the business, which impacts would you prioritize in its pandemic response?
3) What steps can the business take to prevent or mitigate the impacts on affected individuals?

To answer each question, students can apply a human rights impact management approach to the pandemic. The first requires students to consider how a specific business is causing, contributing to, or linked through its activities or business relationships to an adverse human rights impact. For hospital systems, students distinguished impacts directly connected to a hospital’s operations, such as patients’ rights to health and nondiscrimination; healthcare workers’ rights to health and safe working conditions; and the community’s right to timely and accurate information about the nature and spread of the virus, from impacts more appropriately addressed by government actors, such as the rights to freedom of movement and association. The second question leads to a discussion of prioritization criteria, such as the severity, scope, and scale of the human rights impact, from the perspective of rights holders. The third puts students in the shoes of managers deciding what specific next steps the enterprise should take, and in what order. Students determined, for example, that a responsible hospital system would secure essential supplies, like PPE and ventilators; encourage sick healthcare workers to stay home; and adopt policies to ensure nondiscrimination in access to healthcare.

During her Spring 2020 Corporate Sustainability, Business and Human Rights course at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Nina Gardner created an online discussion thread for the class to add COVID-related BHR articles and made available a partially curated list of articles by the Teaching Forum. The instructor assigned a three-page “memo to the CEO in time of COVID” and students were invited to select a company of their choosing from four sectors: apparel; manufacturing; food and beverage; and internet, communications and telecom (ICT). In the memo, students were asked to apply the learnings from the semester to address systemic human rights impacts of their company which COVID exposed. Students were asked to adopt the role of the company’s Chief Sustainability or Human Rights Officer and to address a number of  questions including:

1)  What are the key human rights issues facing the company at present and how did the COVID-19 virus exacerbate them?
2) How can the UNGPs help guide the company’s longer term response to the human rights issues exposed by the pandemic by making it more resilient?
3) How can the company in turn make the case to investors that the measures it is adopting helps reduce its Social (ESG) risk and therefore putting the company on a more solid footing?

In her final class, students who had selected the same sector were asked to pull together short and long term recommendations for the sector as a whole and present their findings to their industry association in 3-4 slides. This worked well as a short group project and had the advantage of exposing students to challenges in sectors other than the company they had selected.  Gardner notes that for the memo assignment a couple students fell into the short-term thinking pitfall, focussing too much on resolving immediate COVID-related challenges, as opposed to using the UNGPs to correct more systemic human rights risks exposed by the pandemic.

Business courses can consider the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across various business functions and disciplines, from human resources, marketing and compliance, to supply chain management, finance, and corporate governance. Corporate pandemic response can illustrate the importance of applying a human rights lens to functions such as crisis management and risk assessment.

Learning objectives for students in all academic disciplines may include:

  • Understanding the actual and potential human rights impacts of the pandemic.
  • Being familiar with relevant international human rights standards.
  • Applying the UN Guiding Principles to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Critically assessing the response of specific businesses, sectors, and government actors to the pandemic.
  • Surveying the business practices companies can use to prevent, mitigate, and remedy the adverse human rights impacts of the pandemic.
  • Predicting the impact of the pandemic on future BHR practice.
  • Identifying areas for further research.

Key Questions


  • What are the human rights impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What are the sector-specific human rights impacts of the pandemic?
  • What are the instruments defining these rights under international law?
  • Can states limit rights during public health emergencies? If so, which ones?
  • How do the UN Guiding Principles apply to the pandemic response by states and by business enterprises?
  • How should companies define their responsibilities in the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How have companies in various industries addressed–or failed to address–various human rights impacts of COVID-19, on their customers, employees, suppliers, and communities?
  • What considerations have shaped company decision-making around COVID-19? How has COVID-19 changed the economic, political, and epidemiological context in ways that have affected company decision-making?

For business students

  • How can human rights commitments be embedded in corporate policies governing pandemic response?
  • What can companies do to prevent and mitigate the human rights impacts of the pandemic?
  • How should companies prioritize the human rights impacts of the pandemic?
  • How do the human rights impacts vary by industry sector? by geography?
  • What industry-specific metrics illustrate the value of applying a human rights lens to pandemic response?
  • How can companies apply a human rights lens to risk management and crisis planning?
  • How can companies “know and show” the human rights impacts connected to their operations and business partners?
  • How are investors that apply “ESG” (environmental, social, and governance) criteria evaluating corporate pandemic responses? Are shareholder resolutions addressing pandemic response?
  • What are the risks to investors not engaging with companies on their ‘Social” risks?
  • What are companies doing in response to government failures to provide adequate pandemic guidance?
  • How can companies promote human rights protection by government actors during a pandemic?

For law students

  • Under international law, which rights can be limited by states to protect public health? What are the criteria for these limitations?
  • Which rights are non-derogable, even during a pandemic?
  • How can human rights due diligence help companies understand the human rights impacts of the pandemic connected to their activities and relationships?
  • What remedies are available to victims of pandemic-related human rights violations?
  • How can non-judicial operational-level grievance mechanisms address pandemic impacts?
  • Under the UN Guiding Principles and international human rights law, what are companies’ responsibilities in relation to various human rights risks tied to COVID-19? (It may be valuable to choose a particular industry, area of human rights, or even specific incident.)
  • Under the Guiding Principles and international human rights law, what are governments’ responsibilities in relation to various human rights risks tied to COVID-19 and connected to business?

For policy students

  • What can governments require of companies during a pandemic?
  • What is the appropriate role of business enterprises when governments fail to respond adequately to  COVID-19?
  • How might governments collaborate with businesses to address the impacts of COVID-19? What human rights issues could arise from such collaborations?
  • How can companies promote public health beyond their operations?
  • When governments fail to fulfill their human rights responsibilities related to COVID-19, should businesses step in to fill the gaps? How do the capabilities and legitimacy of government and business differ? 
  • Should businesses use their political power to influence government actions related to COVID-19?
  • How should governments regulate the use of COVID-related medical and biometric (i.e. facial recognition) data by companies to track the movement of people?

Teaching Resources


[*] This teaching note may be cited as:

Anthony Ewing, Jamie O’Connell, and Nina Gardner, “Teaching Note: Human Rights and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” in Teaching Business and Human Rights Handbook (Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum, 2020),

[1] World Health Organization, “”We have therefore made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic”- @DrTedros #coronavirus,

[2] Data as of 18 June, 2020. Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Center,

[3] “COVID-19: impact could cause equivalent of 195 million job losses, says ILO chief”  (8 April 2020), available at

[4] UNDP, “COVID-19: Human development on course to decline this year for the first time since 1990 (May 20, 2020), available at

[5] “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” UN doc. A/HRC/17/31 (21 March 2011), available at (“UN Guiding Principles”).

[6] United Nations, “COVID-19 and Human Rights: We are all in this together” (April 2020), available at

[7] World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe, “Nursing and MIdwifery: Data and statistics” (accessed June 9, 2020), available at (reporting that “[i]n almost all countries in the [WHO European] Region, over 90% of nurses and midwives are female”).

[8] See generally UNESCO, COVID-19 Response, available at

[9] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response” (Mar. 19, 2020), available at

[10] UN Experts, “COVID-19: States should not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights – UN experts” (Mar. 16, 2020), available at

[11] UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, “Ensuring that business respects human rights during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond: The relevance of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (May 2020), available at

[12] See generally, International Labour Organization, “COVID-19 and the World of Work, available at–en/index.htm.

[13] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12) (11 August 2000), available at

[14] See UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 29: Article 4: Derogations during a State of Emergency (31 August 2001), available at; UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 27: Article 12 (Freedom of Movement) (2 November 1999), available at

[15] American Association for the International Commission of Jurists, The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (April 1985), available at

[16] European Court of Human Rights, “Guide on Article 15 of the European Court of Human Rights: Derogation in time of emergency” updated Dec. 31,  2019, available at

[17] Ibid, p. 8/14.

[18] Official Journal of the European Union, Article 9, available at

[19] Official Journal of the European Union, Section 5  “Restrictions”, Article 23, available at

[20]European Data Protection Board, “Statement on the processing of personal data in the context of the covid-19 outbreak”, March 19, 2020

[21] Ibid.

[22] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Res. No. 1/2020, “PANDEMIC AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE AMERICAS” (Adopted Apr. 10, 2020), available at, para. C.3.d.

[23] Ibid., paras. C.3.f-g.

[24] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “IACHR Calls on States to Protect and Preserve the Work of Human Rights Defenders During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Press Release (May 5, 2020), available at

[25] Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining (Conventions 87 and 98); the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor (Conventions 29 and 105); the effective elimination of child labor (Conventions 138 and 182); and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation (Conventions 100 and 111). ILO, Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1988). 

[26] See ILO, “FAQ – Key provisions of international labour standards relevant to the evolving COVID-19 outbreak” (Mar 27, 2020), available at–en/index.htm.

[27] ILO, Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205), preamble, paras. 7(b), 43.

[28] UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, supra n. 11.

[29] UN Guiding Principles, Principle 13.

[30] UN Guiding Principles, Commentary, Principle 15.

[31] See UN Guiding Principles, Principles 16-24.

[32] UN Guiding Principles, Principle 29.

[33] Institute for Human Rights and Business, “Respecting Human Rights in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Examining Companies’ Responsibilities for Workers and Affected Communities” (April 2020) available at

[34] African Commission on Human and  Peoples’ Rights, “Press Statement on Human Rights Based Effective Response to the Novel COVID-19 Virus in Africa” (Mar. 24, 2020), para. 9, available at:

[35] UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, supra n. 11.

[36] Shift, “Making Rights-Respecting Business Decisions in a COVID-19 World” (May 2020), available at

[37] Zachary Brennan, “Remdesivir helps coronavirus patients — but at what cost?” Politico (May 6, 2020), available at:

[38] Lauren Leatherby and David Gelles, “How the Virus Transformed the Way Americans Spend Their Money,” The New York Times (Apr. 11, 2020), available at:

[39] McKinsey & Company, “Consumer sentiment is Evolving As Countries Around the World Begin to Reopen” (June 5, 2020) (Table: Global consumers anticipate pulling back on spending across categories, data from May 25), available at:

[40] See, e.g., Mei-Ling McNamara, “Anger at Huge Shareholder Payout as US Chain Kohl’s Cancels $150m in Orders,” The Guardian (Jun. 10, 2020), available at:

[41] Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, COVID-19 Action Tracker, available at: (accessed June 15, 2020).

[42] See Anna Triponel and John Sherman, “Moral bankruptcy during times of crisis: H&M just thought twice before triggering force majeure clauses with suppliers, and here’s why you should too” (Mar. 31, 2020), available at

[43] See, e.g., Clean Clothes Campaign, “Garment Workers and the Pandemic,” available at

[44] See, e.g., Fair Labor Association, “Protecting Workers During and After the Global Pandemic” (Apr. 6, 2020), available at

[45] European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, “Garment Supply Chains in Intensive Care? Human Rights Due Diligence in Times of (Economic) Crisis” (Apr. 2020), at 4, 8.

[46] See, e.g., Chauncey Alcorn, “California Officials Capitulate to Elon Musk, Allow Tesla Plant to Reopen, CNN (May 13, 2020), available at:

[47]  Áine Cain and Madeline Stone, “These 16 retailers and restaurant chains have filed for bankruptcy or liquidation in 2020,” Business Insider (June 1, 2020), available at:

[48] Sarah Butler, “85,000 Jobs Lost from Britain’s High Streets as Retailers Feel the Pinch,” The Guardian (Nov. 11, 2018), available at:

[49] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover — April 2020” (June 9, 2020), available at:

[50] See Laura King, “What Job Protection Does Europe Offer, and How, As Coronavirus Rages?” Los Angeles Times (Apr. 23, 2020), available at:

[51] See Leatherby and Gelles, supra n. 38;  McKinsey & Company, “Consumer sentiment is Evolving As Countries Around the World Begin to Reopen,” (Jun. 11, 2020), available at

[52] Sapna Maheshwari, “Patagonia, Quick to Close, Could be Last to Reopen,” The New York Times (May 12, 2020), available at:

[53] Jack Katzanek, “Coronavirus Exposes Sick Leave Gap for Retail, Restaurant Workers,” Press-Enterprise (Mar. 17, 2020), available at; Talib Visram, “Trader Joe’s Workers Say the Company’s Coronavirus Plans Are ‘Insufficient,’” Fast Company (Mar. 5, 2020), available at

[54] U.S. Department of Labor, “Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act: Employee Paid Leave Rights,” available at

[55] The value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example, fell as much as 30% during the first quarter of 2020.

[56] See, e.g., Hugh Leask,  “New Blackrock research points to ESG resilience during coronavirus downturn”, HedgeWeek (May 19, 2020), available at

[57]John Hale, “Sustainability Funds Weather the First Quarter better than Conventional funds,” Morningstar (Apr. 2, 2020), available at

[58] BlackRock blog, “The global pandemic could accelerate the ESG imperative” (May 2, 2020), available at

[59] See Sustainable Investments Institute, “Action Report: Social (Human Rights): Tyson Foods” (Jan. 10, 2020), available at

[60] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch et al, “Joint Civil Society Statement: States use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights” (Apr. 2, 2020), available at; OneZero, “We Mapped How the Coronavirus Is Driving New Surveillance Programs Around the World (Apr. 9, 2020), available at

[61] Kirsten Grind, Robert McMillanandAnna Wilde Mathews, “To Track Virus, Governments Weigh Surveillance Tools That Push Privacy Limits,” The Wall Street Journal (Mar. 17, 2020), available at

[62] See, e.g., Jessica Davis, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Spotlight Privacy, Security Rights,” Health ITSecurity (May 20, 2020), available at

[63] See, e.g., Nicholas Casey, “College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are,” The New York Times (Apr. 4, 2020), available at

[64] UN Guiding Principles, Commentary, Principle 1.

[65] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Resolution No. 1/2020 (Apr. 10, 2020, 10, available at:

[66] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, “Press Release on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Africa” (June 5, 2020), para. 12, available at:

[67] UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, supra n. 11.

[68] See “Coronavirus: Fake News Crackdown by UK Government,” BBC (Mar. 30, 2020), available at:

[69] See Lisa Hänel, ‘German government hosts coronavirus pandemic hackathon,” DW (Apr. 9, 2020), available at:

[70] European Parliament, Resolution of 17 April 2020 on EU Coordinated Action to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Consequences, 2020/2616(RSP), para. 68, available at:

[71] UN Guiding Principles, Principles 3(b), 8.

[72] UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, supra n. 11.

[73] See Charles P. Pierce, “This Is COVID-19, But It’s Also a Symptom of Deeper and Older Plagues,” Esquire (Jun. 15, 2020), available at:

[74] See Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind , and Patience Haggin, “Tech Firms Are Spying on You. In a Pandemic, Governments Say That’s OK.,” The Wall Street Journal (Jun. 15, 2020).

[75] Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response” (Mar. 19, 2020), available at:

[76] See, generally, Maysa Zorob & Andrea Hearon, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, “What are the avenues for corporate liability for COVID-19-related human rights abuses?(Jun. 16,  2020), available at