Public health and discrimination - where is the line?

3 June 2020

ZGED8733

In a radio broadcast of the Seimas Ombudsmen’s Office program “Everyone counts” there was a live discussion regarding potential violations of the human rights of elderly people during the quarantine period, which received a lot of attention. Participants of the broadcast - Toma Birmontienė, Professor of Mykolas Romeris University, former Judge of the Constitutional Court and Vytautas Valentinavičius, Head of the Human Rights Division of the Seimas Ombudsmen’s Office, tried to find out where is the line between the necessary care for a person's health and discrimination and, most importantly, whether that line has not yet been broken.

When during the radio broadcast Professor Toma Birmontienė was asked concerning the potentially discriminatory situation of elderly people and inadequate enforcement of their rights, she first of all noted that additional protection for the elderly is needed and regretted that there is lack of understanding of what measures should be taken to protect those people. According to her, what is even more important, is the lack of cooperation with human rights organizations and other institutions in order not to violate human rights or to discriminate against individuals by a specific recommendation.

"In general, it is logical to think and believe that elderly people need extra protection, therefore, the question is only as to how we do it and what measures we take. If we want to warn elderly people, instead of prescriptive instruction, we should encourage them to take care of their health and act responsibly. At the moment, the image is that we are not really trying to protect the elderly, but rather ourselves from them. It may be wrong to think that if there are no elderly people in public places, the environment will be healthier,” Professor Toma Birmontienė pointed out.

 Vytautas Valentinavičius, the Head of the Human Rights Division of the Seimas Ombudsmen's Office, noticed that it is also important to take into consideration the fact that the higher risk of becoming infected with the virus is not necessarily related to a person’s age. Certain coercive requirements imposed by the State; however, are linked exclusively to age and therefore it is questionable whether those decisions are not targeted at just one particular social group. The interlocutor also noted that special care for the elderly can lead to extreme negative consequences that make such people feel undeservedly excluded from other members of society and worthless.

"I agree with the interlocutor on the observation about the necessary understanding of what measures should be taken for care of the elderly people, as there is currently only one protection measure in Lithuania, i.e. bans. In other words, it would be worthwhile first and foremost to give individuals the opportunity to decide for themselves with dignity, in return providing sufficient knowledge and assistance. This is exactly the feature of a mature democracy when a person is not accompanied by precautionary warnings or even prohibitions that subsequently have extremely sensitive consequences for the elderly in the community”, - Vytautas Valentinavičius drew the attention of the listeners.

 The interlocutors of the radio broadcast also pointed out that an imperative presentation of authoroties‘ recommendations are of particular concern since it gives the public the false impression that the recommendations are binding in nature. Having doubts regarding appropriateness of presenting recommendations to the public, Vytautas Valentinavičius drew the listeners' attention to the fact that a strong democratic and civil society has to be critical and conscious, and each time must assess whether specific recommendations are rational and proportionate, with a clear understanding of a purely indicative nature of the recommendations.

“I would like to end the discussion by asking all of us whether we could imagine the Scandinavian countries posting any discriminatory advertisements or promoting bans? From where we are taking examples? It seems that we are following the system of the past, where everything was based on prohibitions, therefore, I believe that any advertisements or signs that promote discrimination against elderly people in general should not be allowed,” noted Toma Birmontienė.

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