A homeless man and his son cover themselves with a plastic sheet to protect themselves from rain as they walk to a shelter during a coronavirus lockdown in India. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

By Marjon L. Saulon, Lisa Sorush and Nasema Zeerak

In a year of loss, triumph, and grief, Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 serves as a stark reminder of the many challenges and actions we must take to build peace in our communities.

To this day, over 65 million people around the world have been struck by COVID-19. Over 1.5 million lives have been lost as a result, and people from all walks of life have suffered greatly from the economic, financial, and emotional tolls brought by the pandemic. In cities across the globe, we have seen images of hospitals filled at capacity, businesses forcibly shut down, governments scrambling to fill shortages of masks and ventilators, and children left with little access to education.

While the pandemic has created an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, it has also created a human rights crisis. Instead of prioritizing a human rights-based approach to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many countries have used the pandemic as a pretext for human rights violations, exacerbating the crisis. This is a crisis that we can only solve through local, national, and international cooperation—one in which governments and organizations must seek to minimize or eliminate any adverse impact on the rights of individuals at every level of response.

The coronavirus has affected many vulnerable groups. Women who experienced intimate partner violence for example, had been forced to quarantine with their abusers early in the pandemic due to stay-at-home orders. In Colombia, domestic violence calls to the national women’s hotline increased by 130% in the first 18 days of quarantine, while in Peru, over 104,000 calls were made to the national domestic violence hotline between March and July—more than double the amount from the same period in 2019.

In a search for the latest updates on the virus, social media became a bigger breeding ground for false conspiracy theories. In April, Muslims and mosques in India were attacked after baseless conspiracy theories went viral on twitter. In parts of Europe and Latin America, organized criminal groups have sought to gain greater support among communities by not only providing aid, but by enforcing curfews to halt the spread of the virus. This could have lasting implications on the strength of criminal groups and social cohesion between individuals and their governments.

San Diegans have also suffered. Recent human trafficking reports show an increase from 287 reports in April 2019 to more than 850 in April 2020, in part due to increased online presence by vulnerable teens. With the rise of hate crimes and divisive rhetoric, often targeted against racial and ethnic minorities, the county Board of Supervisors recently voted to revive its Human Relations Commission.

As we recognize Human Rights Day, it is important that we not only remember the lives affected during this difficult time, but also the ideals we continue to fight for. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting the foundation for what we consider fundamental freedoms every human being is entitled to upon birth. These rights include freedom of speech, assembly, association and worship and the protection of health—rights that have directly been under attack the past year.

As practice fellows at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, we are hoping to be part of the solution. In our research under the Impact:Peace, program, we are conducting interdisciplinary research at the intersection of human rights, urban violence prevention, and political violence. For instance, in our latest research, Peace in Our Cities at a Time of Pandemic — funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office — we examine different aspects of violence in cities amid the spread of COVID-19, such as food related violence in informal settlements, violence against women, and organized crime. After what has been an unprecedented election year, we are also working with our partners on ways to prevent political violence in the United States.

As we approach Human Rights Day, we are hopeful that organizations and individuals will continue to create and share innovative, human rights-based approaches to help vulnerable communities in need.

Now, more than ever, our collective efforts can shape communities here and around the world to become more peaceful and just in years to come.

Marjon L. Saulon, Lisa Sorush and Nasema Zeerakv are graduate students at the University of San Diego and practice fellows at the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

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