Human Rights and Technology from a Global Health Perspective: The COVID-19 Challenge in a Developing World

  • Muhammad Khaled Nabih Attlam
  • October 5, 2020
Introduction: Health and Human Rights


In a world prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, one could say that we had made remarkable progress against leading causes of death and illness. Globally, life expectancy has seen a dramatic increase, as maternal and child mortality rates have declined. However, even then the world was not on track to achieve the health-related United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); with a 31-year gap between the countries with the shortest and longest life expectancies, and national averages failing to include those who have been left behind. Although the 2030 Agenda prioritizes the development of the health sector in order to achieve sustainable development through investing in human capital, good health is challenged by economic and social inequalities, rapid urbanization and even the environment.[2]


The human right to health has always been held sacred across civilizations and religions. [3] Today, we see the human right to health enshrined globally in the World Health Organization’s Constitution [4], in Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [5], and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) [6].  In order to achieve adequate global health standards, every human is entitled access to basic health services and essential medicines, among other rights, such as education, clean water and sanitation, food and nutrition, information, privacy and freedom. These entitlements and rights can only be achieved when states are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil those rights using a human rights-centered approach by ensuring the “Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability and Quality” of all public health programmes and health-care facilities. [7]




Health and Technologies: The UN Tech Access Partnership (TAP)


Since the characterization of COVID-19 as a pandemic, it has become even more challenging to protect health through human rights. While technologies, such as those used for digital transformation, have proven to be an effective response to champion the ‘social distancing’ measure required to combat the virus, not everyone has access to these technologies – and do will not have access to them anytime in the near future. This inequality is also observed in countries with limited resources that are unable to purchase or even produce necessary tools needed to respond to the pandemic – as demand for personal protective equipment (such as masks and gloves), medical devices (such as ventilators) and diagnostics increases exponentially. [8]


One way the UN is assisting in closing this gap is by launching the Tech Access Partnership (TAP). “Now, more than ever, the global community needs to unite to save lives and secure sustainable futures. Inequalities are exacerbating the technology and digital divide…,” says Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary- General of the UN. “Increasing access to necessary technologies through partnerships, is a crucial component of the United Nations’ COVID-19 health, humanitarian and socio-economic response.” [9]


On the other hand, using technology comes with its own set of challenges, as some are more complex to deploy humanely, such as tracing infections and surveillance, while adhering to international human rights guidelines. However, despite the varying digital technologies available in countries, mobile health innovation can help tackle COVID-19, as shown by a UN Volunteer in Africa [10] who works among more than half a million Online Volunteers to fight the virus during lockdown through UNV. [11] 


Coronavirus (COVID-19) is the “greatest test since World War Two”, as described by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.” The fact remains that we can only overcome this crisis together. States are assisting one another with medical supplies, companies are giving free access to their digital tools, and volunteers are helping vulnerable people in their communities. The UN has declared the next ten years the Decade of Action to meet all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and while the Coronavirus has added another layer of complexity, it represents an opportunity to create a healthier and equal world.


Filters: Human Rights, Technology, E-Health, COVID-19





[1] Mechatronics Engineer, Graduate of the German University in Cairo; Access to Health Technologies Researcher; Youth SDG Advocate.





[2] United Nations Development Programme. (2020). Goal 3: Good health and well-being. Retrieved from:


[3] L.M. Elsayed. (2012). Efficacy of constitutional support to enhance access to essential medicines as a human right to health in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. Retrieved from:


[4] World Health Organization Constitution. (1946). Retrieved from:


[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948). Retrieved from:


[6] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (1966). Retrieved from:


[7] CESCR General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12). (2000). Retrieved from:


[8] World Health Organization. (2020). Addressing human rights as key to the COVID-19 response. Retrieved from: ?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


[9] United Nations Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries. (2020). UN agencies launch Tech Access Partnership in joint effort to scale up local production of life-saving health technologies for COVID-19. Retrieved from: content/launch_tech_access_partnership


[10] UN Volunteers. (2020). How mobile health innovation tackles COVID-19 in Africa. Retrieved from:


[11] UN Volunteers. (2020) Volunteering online during lockdown to fight COVID-19. Retrieved from:


South of Global Health

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South of Global Health is a blog of the Global Health Institute at the American University of Beirut which tackles the Global South’s most pressing health issues across multiple intersectional themes. The blog intends to serve as an outlet for health-related issues affecting and originating from the most vulnerable regions of the developing world.


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