Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis

The year 2020 introduced the world to the “new normal” with COVID-19. Caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in one of the most deadly public health crises in history, infecting more than 124 million people worldwide and claiming more than 2 million lives. Additionally, the pandemic exposed societal inequities and the many human rights at risk during a public health crisis, including the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, social security, education, and more.

Our defenders’ stories are powerful not only because of their actions but also because of the challenging circumstances under which they lived, where their rights were at risk or abused. Our new lesson plan, “Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis,” highlights two modern human rights defenders who are speaking truth to power—Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization—and uses interactive activities to explore the human rights at risk and the role of government in a public health crisis.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, Anthony Fauci worked in the family drugstore, attended Catholic schools, and graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1966. In 1968, he joined the National Institutes of Health in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation, part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Dr. Fauci was appointed director of NIAID in 1984. He has overseen research to prevent, diagnose, and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as autoimmune disorders, asthma, and allergies. Within 20 years of taking the reins of NIAID, Fauci had secured a thousandfold increase in the institute’s funding. He received the National Medal of Science in 2005 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

He is undoubtedly best known for standing on the front line of the fight against the novel coronavirus COVID-19. In 2020, he took the lead in mobilizing American science to confront the deadly threat. Despite partisan debate, Fauci stood his ground and remained in his post throughout the administration of President Donald Trump. Anthony Fauci continues to serve as director of NIAID and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. He is among the most highly cited medical researchers of all time.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was born in 1965 in the Ethiopian city of Asmara (now in Eritrea). He graduated from the University of Asmara in biology, earned a master’s in immunology of infectious diseases from the University of London, and a Ph.D. in community health from the University of Nottingham. He returned to Ethiopia to support the delivery of health services as a field-level malariologist, a regional health service leader, and later by serving for over a decade as minister of health and then minister of foreign affairs. Under his leadership, he elevated health as a political issue nationally, regionally, and globally, and expanded Ethiopia’s health infrastructure and workforce.

In May 2017, Tedros was elected World Health Organization (WHO) director-general—the first African to head the world’s leading public health agency. After taking office, he outlined five key priorities: universal health coverage; health emergencies; women’s, children’s, and adolescents’ health; health impacts of climate and environmental change; and a transformed WHO.

When approaching these lessons, educators must be mindful of the drastic toll the coronavirus pandemic may be taking on students’ mental health and their social and emotional well-being. Students and educators alike may have experienced some level of trauma and/or loss due to COVID-19, and it is very natural for both groups to feel stress during and outside the virtual school day. Educators should provide time for themselves and their students to process their emotions in a healthy and reflective way. STTP recommends that educators consider the level of personal support students might need in tandem with a lesson and be prepared with resources such as contact information for counselors and psychologists at their schools (if applicable) as well as helplines and support organizations. In turn, educators should practice self-care to manage their own stress and avoid burnout.

The STTP team intentionally designed “Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis,” and the rest of our new material, to be effective in an online learning setting. For example:

  • The Anticipatory Activity permits independent or remote research, and the final comparison and contrast exercise can be completed through communal blog posts.

  • Instead of using a flip chart, an educator could use an editable PowerPoint presentation in Activity 1. The class could complete this discussion as a group on Zoom, or the educator could divide students into groups via Zoom Rooms and then gather them together for a discussion at the end.

  • For Activity 2, students may choose a video or resource to view via the already accessible links within the PowerPoint. If the educator can’t use Zoom for oral reports, students could record themselves on a phone and submit an audio or video file.

  • In Activity 3, students can create virtual reports or write a substantial research paper using interactive and up-to-date resources and data from the World Health Organization.

  • As the Culminating Activity draws on the inquiries from Activity 1, educators may facilitate this activity and the creation of the Rights Action Plan in groups or individually. They can encourage students to use art or other media to express their ideas creatively rather than an oral presentation.

  • Finally, a cornerstone of STTP is the activism and action-oriented “Become a Defender” section in which we encourage students to organize virtual meetings to collaborate and brainstorm (including, but not limited to, organizing on social media).