Culture as Key to Realising Rights in Times of Crisis: COVID19

Culture as Key to Realising Rights in Times of Crisis: COVID19

[Dr Julie Fraser is an Australian lawyer and Assistant Professor with the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) and Montaigne Centre at Utrecht University.]

The cultural frameworks into which we are socialised generally shape our worldview, including our taste in music or cuisine, definition of family, and conceptions of illness and wellbeing, their causes and remedies. Recognising this, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires States to ensure that rights to food, water, housing, and health be realised in ‘culturally appropriate’ ways. This is an obligation on all States parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. I argue here that while a culturally sensitive approach to human rights implementation is important at all times, it is all the more imperative in a crisis. 

An earlier study I co-authored of the Ebola crisis in West Africa that reached its peak in 2015 exemplified how indispensable a culturally sensitive approach to the right to health can be. Other studies also draw from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today, the COVID19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic provides further illustration. The point I seek to emphasise by these examples is that culture is key in human rights realisation – full stop. But also, and most pertinently today, culture is key to realising rights in times of crisis. Despite the fundamental importance of culture to health interventions, social scientists have not thoroughly considered ‘the impact of countries’ cultural characteristics in the fight against outbreaks.’

Lessons from Ebola 

During the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014/2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified traditional burial rites for the dead as one of many contributing factors in Ebola’s spread. The rites included family members washing and oiling the body of the deceased, and sometimes physically modifying it for burial. These practices were problematic for containing Ebola as it can be communicated through direct or indirect contact with the bodily fluids of infected people – even after death. Because of this, burial rites and practices became a potential pathway for Ebola contamination. Additionally, the practice of moving the body to be buried in a different village impeded efforts to quarantine certain areas.

Despite calls from governments and aid agencies, many people did not stop these burial practices as they are considered vital for a community’s health and stability. Neglecting these rites can have consequences as real or even more impactful than the threat of Ebola. For example, the improper passage of the deceased into the afterlife is believed to cause disastrous results including crop failure or, on a more personal level, the inability of the deceased’s spirit to find peace. If the WHO and other health workers trying to contain Ebola fail to understand and appreciate the affected communities’ need to care for their dead in a particular way, it can rupture the trust necessary for communication, cooperation, and effective implementation of preventative measures. In the Ebola outbreak this lack of trust was an important factor, creating chaos and putting local communities and health workers at risk.

It was only later in the outbreak that officials began to engage with local communities in West Africa to discover ways to meet the needs of customary burials along with preventing transmission of Ebola. This included some symbolic as well as remedial practices, but also new innovations in burials, which could only come from the community itself in order to be culturally legitimate. This example demonstrates that including local community cultural perspectives on health interventions is not only respectful, but a precondition for their effective realisation. It also demonstrates the inherent links between culture and human rights including the right to health and right to life among others, and the necessity for human rights solutions to be culturally appropriate.

The initial expectation in the Ebola outbreak seemed to be that people would put their culture to the side and focus instead on the crisis at hand – without understanding that culture shapes our perception and understanding of crises as well as our responses to them. My assertion is that in times of crisis, culture is not a ‘luxury’ that can be dispensed with in realising human rights, but that it becomes all the more important. I elaborate upon this using one of our present health crises: COVID19. 

COVID19 Pandemic

Detected at the end of 2019 in Wuhan, China, the WHO declared COVID19 a pandemic officially in March 2020. In response, States around the world adopted various measures in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, such as travel bans, curfews, quarantines, work from home orders, school closures, cancelling large events, social/physical distancing, and the wearing of facemasks. This meant that religious activities were cancelled or diminished, including regular services and celebrations like Christmas and Eid. Theatres and cinemas were closed, as were restaurants and bars, and sporting events postponed. These measures have now been applied in a range of combinations for almost two years around the world, adversely impacting upon the enjoying of people’s human rights, including freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and the right to participate in cultural life. Despite these measures, and the development of vaccines, COVID19 continues to spread, and has killed over five million people to date. 

Given that the COVID19 response measures conflicted with many of our cultural traditions, oftentimes they were not strictly followed and even ignored. We know that weddings were still held, sports were still played, and religious festivals still celebrated. Like in the Ebola study, scholars have tracked the spread of COVID19 in South Africa via burial ceremonies. As such, human behaviour was at times contrary to the urgent measures put in place to protect our rights to health and even life. In this way, cultural patterns can undermine our collective responses to crises. Scholars have acknowledged this, studying, for example, the role of culture in influencing people’s adherence to measures like physical distancing and recommending (here and here) that ‘core cultural values’ be embedded in messaging by Governments and scientists around COVID19.

In response to this, there has been a rise of different measures – more culturally attuned ones – to promote greater public compliance with COVID19 measures. Given the broad, sociological meaning of culture, these measures have included music, food, sports, as well as religion. For example, religious leaders around the world have been actively making public statements and appeals, urging their followers to get vaccinated. The Dalai Lama has promoted the vaccine, and Pope Francis urged Catholics to get vaccinated, calling it an ‘act of love’. Representatives of the Catholic Church in the Philippines even offered their churches as facilities for rolling out the Government’s vaccine programme. Cognisant of the important role played by religious leaders as “a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve”, the WHO put out COVID19 guidelines and recommendations for religious leaders already in April 2020. 

Islamic leaders have also addressed various aspects of the COVID19 pandemic including the permissibility of vaccines. Fatwas – religious rulings – have been made in support of the vaccine, declaring them to be halal/permissible. For example, leading Muslim scholars in the UK and Singapore endorsed the vaccines, and Egypt’s religious authority Dar al-Iftaa declared taking the vaccine to be a religious duty. Academic scholars (see here and here) have studied Islamic responses to COVID measures such as the permissibility of quarantine and lockdown, including suspending Friday prayers and the pilgrimage to Mecca. As with the earlier study on Ebola, Muslim scholars have also considered norms regarding the handling of dead bodies in light of COVID19 prevention. 

Such scholars note that Muslim leaders can be hugely impactful given that their authority can be greater than that of politicians and even doctors. My own research regarding Islamic norms and actors in Indonesia found that their involvement can be the determining factor in the success or failure of a health intervention. These positions are not limited to the Muslim world, with a 2021 Pew study from the USA showing that believers have more trust in their clergy’s advice on vaccines “than they do in state elected officials, local elected officials or news media”. It is necessary to add the caveat that while religious leaders can be influential in promoting health interventions to stop the spread of COVID19, they can also function in the reverse (see for example the Apostolic church in Zimbabwe and Christian evangelicals in the USA). 

Other cultural responses to the COVID19 pandemic included musical and gastronomical ones. Popular African musicians (see here and here) such as Ugandan Bobi Wine and Nubian Li, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, and Congolese Gaz Fabilouss and Fally Ipupa, recorded songs relating to the pandemic, urging listeners to social distance and quarantine. Australia’s live music industry and artists have teamed up to #vaxthenation. In the USA, country singer Dolly Parton altered her famous song ‘Jolene’ with the refrain “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate”. Other responses in the USA include the special promotion in bars, where patrons were offered a free shot of alcohol for having had their ‘shot’ of the vaccine. Krispy Kreme gave free donuts to vaccinated patrons – just one of the many cultural giveaways including food and tickets to sporting events on offer. 

Culture and International Human Rights Law

These examples underline that cultural approaches can be indispensable – rather than just preferable – to human rights protection generally as well as in times of crisis. In fact, especially in times of crisis, culture should not be set aside but rather further engaged with. Particularly where behaviour change is required, cultural actors need to be engaged early on to ensure that behaviours are culturally legitimate in order to be effective. As such, it is necessary for Governments to already have contacts and collaborations with cultural actors so that avenues for dialogue are already in place before crises arise. In fact, States are obliged by international law to consult with community actors regarding health goods, facilities, and services. Rather than thinking only about law and policy to implement rights and crisis response measures, States need to also use the rich cultural resources and assets available. In this way my argument is for response measures to go beyond both the law as well as the State, with non-state actors having a role (and responsibility) in human rights protection.

I suggest that culture is best seen not just as a part of human rights, but as the matrix within which to understand human rights realisation in context. This will represent quite a shift of perspective for some, especially in international law. This is because culture is often at best misunderstood – and at worst vilified – in international human rights law. It is often presented as a violation of rights or as an obstacle to their enjoyment (think here about ‘harmful practices’). Sally Engle Merry, the famous and now late legal anthropologist, lamented international law’s ‘demonization’ of culture. While progress has been made since Merry’s 2003 article (due in part to the work of scholars including Special Rapporteurs in the field of cultural rights), I have found that international law still tends to essentialise culture – treating it as static and homogenous – or ‘others’ culture, considering it as something abroad but not at home. As such, we need to have a better – more accurate and sophisticated – understanding of culture in human rights and international law – especially in times of crisis. Failing to engage culture in this way is to forgo ‘one of the most important means with which humans can meet societal challenges’.

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