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AAAS’ SRHRL Tracks Human Rights During Pandemic

Theresa Harris
Theresa Harris. Image courtesy of Theresa Harris; AAAS.

COVID-19 has ransacked communities across the globe, throwing into high relief the natural if not always obvious intersection of science and human rights. Theresa Harris, a AAAS Project Director in the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program (SRHRL), is helping facilitate those big-issue discussions as they have emerged during the pandemic.

In the spring, when the enormity of the crisis began to become apparent, Harris saw "how much the scientific response could be informed by a human rights perspective. I also knew how much the scientific community had to offer to the discussion around human rights."

So her team created a series of short videos, titled "Responding to COVID-19: Science and Human Rights," to bring those two strands together. Speaking on YouTube, experts in medicine, law, science, sociology, mathematics, technology, political science and other fields address how their work has been touched by the pandemic, and offer insights that reflect their deep knowledge of their subjects.

"We were grateful and overwhelmed by the response. People wanted to bring their own expertise to this historic moment," Harris says.

Shelly Lesher, for example, a nuclear physicist, talks about a consortium of physicists working to develop a fail-safe mechanical ventilator to treat COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Statistician Ali Arab explains efforts to disseminate and interpret data like test results and statistical models in the pandemic — what it means to "flatten the curve" of disease incidence, for example. And human rights lawyer Rebecca Everly notes that some governments have been using the pandemic as an excuse to move against the rights of citizens, and of scientists, well outside the concerns of the present emergency.

COVID-19 has hit poor communities particularly hard, Harris notes. Economically disadvantaged people have become sick more often, have more serious symptoms, and are more likely to die.

Inequities in digital access are also hurting disadvantaged families disproportionately. In one of the video presentations Harris's team produced, Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, points out that in millions of families that lacked access to the internet, adults were not able to work remotely and children may have fallen behind in school.

Harris says in more normal times, widespread systemic concerns such as the unequal internet access Ochilla has identified can often be dismissed as local issues, despite their importance to public health. For Harris, the "silver lining" in this may be that the experience can help us prepare for climate change, what she calls "the existential challenge" of our time.

For SRHRL, the guidelines are clear. AAAS has defined five points of connection between science and human rights. First, scientists themselves have rights that need to be protected, such as the right to communicate their work to colleagues and the public.

Scientists also have responsibilities. One egregious abuse was the infamous Tuskegee study, begun in 1932: For forty years, scientists calmly observed the progression of syphilis in hundreds of Black men even though effective treatments had become available. Biological warfare, artificial intelligence — our own age is alive with human rights challenges. "Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should," Harris says.

Science can be put to work in service of human rights, as when forensic science is used to identify the victims of mass murder events. "AAAS is known as a leader in this area," she says.

People have a right to the fruits of scientific endeavors, too — to effective medical treatments, tools necessary to communicate and work, and information about the best ways to stay healthy, for example.

And science is a constituency for human rights, Harris says. The global framework comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the shadow of atrocities carried out during World War II, and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

"The human rights framework is not just a laundry list of things that are nice to have or to do," Harris says. "These are rights that are inherent for everybody."

SRHRL is working on other efforts to bring the scientific community together to advocate for human rights. On October 22 and 23, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, a group of 24 scientific membership organizations, will host its annual conference virtually, discussing how the scientific, tech and human rights communities can join together to address global challenges that now include the coronavirus. SRHRL serves as the secretariat for the Coalition, providing staff support for its events, activities, and governance.

The virtual aspect of this year's conference is a plus in many ways, says Harris, who is involved in its planning. Nearly twice the participants are expected in 2020 as attended last year's tenth-anniversary in-person meeting. More people from farther away will be able to attend, speakers this year will represent more countries, and there will be a presentation of student posters, as well as "ask me anything" sessions with experts on various topics.

"Being entirely virtual has opened up a lot of room for creativity," Harris says.


Delia O'Hara