Coming Home to Human Rights

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Coming Home to Human Rights

You might be familiar with the old proverb about the butterfly effect. It’s the idea that tiny, unstoppable actions, like a butterfly flapping its wings, can cause a chain reaction in places on the other side of the world.

I was sat thinking about this amidst long grasses in my local, community garden, watching the butterflies dance from flower to flower in the sunlight. Spring 2020 was apparently a particularly good season for butterflies in Scotland. Perhaps it was the unseasonably warm weather we enjoyed, or the reduction in air pollution with fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky, or perhaps it was because I’ve had more time to pause and notice the detail.

In small places here and across the world, the COVID-19 crisis has enforced a moment of collective pause. It has been a moment characterised by fear and courage, despair and hope, loneliness and community—all bundled together—as the immediate and longer-term effects of the pandemic are felt.

In a crisis, everything and everyone is connected. But some are more equal than others in how a crisis is experienced. Like most, I have experienced the lockdown days at home. The boundaries of my #IRL (in real life) world have extended to the park, the post office and the corner shop. Meanwhile, my screen-life on Zoom and social media have connected me to the residents of other streets across the world, all affected in their own ways by a crisis that began in one place and quickly spread to others.

I don’t have a garden of my own so the community garden in the park is an important green space for me and my neighbours to connect with nature and exercise. Children, unable to go to school and lacking space at home, come to play in the park with their parents. It is also a space where local volunteers have self-organised to produce food and then meals for isolated and vulnerable neighbours. There is hope here.

But walking home from watching the butterflies, past the empty cafes, hair salons and garages, I met the minister of a local church. We don’t share the same faith but we care about the same thing, our community. He told me that his lockdown has been full of funerals, supporting grieving families and helping people reliant on food banks for essential supplies. There was a despair in his voice.

Further along the street, some hotel bedrooms and tourist apartments left unoccupied due to coronavirus are now being requisitioned as safe accommodation for homeless people. Like all big cities, Edinburgh has a major homeless problem and now it has found the capacity to provide lots of people safe shelter. Moments of crisis show that the impossible can be made possible where there is the courage to do so. However, these are not the luxury five-star hotels of the city centre but basic hostels and hotels that typically lack laundry or cooking facilities. Some of the 12 new residents in the hotel on my street told me that they have one microwave to share and must wash clothes in bedroom sinks. In such situations, physical distancing is near-impossible and housing charities have warned that permanent, local solutions will need to be found here and in other cities around the world. I expect there is both loneliness and community in this temporary housing.

Neighbourhood, whether living alone or with others, is about being side by side in a community. It is a form of interdependence where one household relies on the actions and reactions of another for ensuring a safe, healthy and happy place to live. And so, a crisis brings into sharp focus questions like who am I? Or rather, who am I with? Our perceptions of othering are heightened because the collective wellbeing of our immediate community—the resourcefulness of neighbours to self-organise into caring roles, and the quality of local infrastructure to respect, protect and fulfil rights such as the right to housing, education or the highest attainable standard of health—can determine whether or not you survive the crisis.

Health and wellbeing is not merely the absence of a virus. They are socially determined by the conditions in which we are born, grow old, and in which we live, work and play alongside one another. This is the interconnectedness of human rights—that a healthy life, physical, mental and social—requires not only the right to health but also rights to housing, education, nutrition, social support and welfare.

A human rights-based approach sets out that a government must use the maximum available resources to provide security to individuals and families. This needs to prioritise those in low paid or precarious forms of employment.

On the other side of the world, a Malawian colleague of mine texted to ask if my family and I were ok because he had heard on the news that the UK was in a health crisis with the highest numbers of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe. I reassured him that my family and I are all fine, although we are angry at the poor response of our government. The exchange was a curious role reversal—that a colleague in the developing world should be concerned about the right to life and to healthcare in our comparatively affluent Northern Europe.

Countries are also interdependent neighbours sharing borders and regions. A virus doesn’t respect neat, sovereign lines. It spreads with the movement of people and animals across ecosystems. A human rights response to the challenges of today and tomorrow needs to recognise that all people and places are interconnected. Further, international law requires states to offer cooperation and assistance to one another. Now is the moment to ask some soul-searching questions about how we want to step forward, together, out of the crisis.

Initiatives like GC Human Rights Preparedness demonstrate that there is a will to listen and learn from one another, place to place, home to home. This makes me feel more hopeful that we will think global, act local in the days ahead.

Jemma Neville

Written by Jemma Neville

Jemma Neville is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is an EMA alumna from 2005/06. Her debut book, Constitution Street, finding hope in an age of anxiety, was published by 404 Ink in 2019. She is Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland.

Cite as: Neville, Jemma. "Coming Home to Human Rights", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 23 July 2020,


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