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Fundamental rights under lockdown

The freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly and the freedom of movement are fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Emergency measures taken in European countries to contain the spread of the Corona virus have generated several side-effects, among which a limitation of these fundamental rights. Critics even argued that some states have taken advantage of the emergency situation to promote dubious legislation unrelated to the fight against Covid-19. Europeans have, however, showed that they are willing to defend these rights, when exceptional situations reveal the vulnerabilities of democratic societies. 

In the early weeks of the European-wide lockdown, Greek-Austrian artist Anna Vasof created a ceramic hand as a mask, to evoke the suffocation — both real and metaphorical — created by the pandemic. “One of the most common effects of Covid-19 illness is shortness of breath and difficulties in breathing, however this illness caused suffocation in many other aspects of life,” Anna Vasof writes about her artwork. 

“It is a fact that plenty of guaranteed constitutional human rights were suppressed in many European countries during the corona crisis and this caused social suffocation for thousands of citizens. During the quarantine many people and especially women had to stay for months in explosive small flats and deal with physical but mostly mentally abusive family members and in order to survive they had to stay in silence. In public space surgical masks became symbols of social distancing, a dystopic situation that describes mostly the fear of coming close to other people.”

Black umbrellas

Reasons to protest have not decreased in lockdown. Some protests were postponed, others were triggered precisely by the emergency measures. But how do people protest when large gatherings are forbidden and public spaces are closed? The freedom to protest derives from the freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression, and is thus also a fundamental right. 

In April 2020, Poland, a law was about to be voted in, making abortion and sexual education illegal. The black umbrellas that had become the symbol of the fight to protect women’s rights in Poland could not be taken out to protest. Magda Górecka, together with other protesters in Szczecin, joined a queue at a supermarket, the only public space available to multiple people at once. Other protesters displayed black umbrellas and posters in their balconies and windows. The voting of the anti-abortion law was finally postponed.

The umbrella is not a random choice for women in Poland but a historical reminder of the long history of fighting for women’s rights. In 1918, Polish suffragettes knocked their umbrellas on the pavement in front of the residence of Józef Piłsudski, the Chief of State, demanding their right to vote.

A tale of two cities. Pandemic borders

The freedom of movement took a hard blow during lockdown. Forgotten borders were reinstated and many Europeans found themselves separated from their families. The inhabitants of border towns reacted with creativity, artworks and silent protests against this limitation on the freedom of movement. 

A researcher at the University of Konstanz, Gruia Bădescu documented the new reality of a city living with the new border:

“In mid-March 2020, a metal fence appeared separating the lakeside green open space shared by the German city of Konstanz and Swiss Kreuzlingen. The German Federal Police built it as part of a country-wide closing of borders policy. This took the citizens of the integrated urban region of Konstanz-Kreuzlingen by surprise. Couples, families and friends were suddenly separated and met at the new border fence to see each other. Sightings of couples holding hands across the fence were not uncommon,” Gruia Bădescu explained to us. 

“In early April, the city council of Kreuzlingen decided to erect a second fence in order to prevent people from touching each other from the two sides. The distance between the two fences matched the social distancing rules.”

Soon enough, silent protests against the closing of the border started to appear. They invited everyone who was impacted or who wanted to participate out of solidarity to think about something they can bring to the fence: a photo, a letter, a lock, or anything else creative. The invitation was to ‘Bring only positive items. No provocations and no rubbish’.

Families organised picnics on each side of the fence and posters appeared on the fence. One stated that “Neither destroyed families, nor nationalism solve a pandemic. The fence should go away.” Another poster announced that ‘A recently married couple mourns their marriage, that after 25 days fell as victim to this fence’.” 

On May 15th the fence was finally taken down. 

As these examples have shown, Europeans found creative ways to challenge the limitations of their fundamental rights during lockdown, inventing ever new ways to make their voices heard.  

You can also read about other Europeans’ reactions to reinstated borders here.


Image credit: Hand mask by Anna Vasof, 2020