[100 Emerging Women Leaders] Why this environmental lawyer started a pro-bono legal platform for COVID-19 rights

Environmental lawyer Sharon Mathew set up the COVIDRights platform to provide the right legal recourse for citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“Since I was a child, the relationship between the law and the people it governs had always interested me. I always saw the law as the means to protect the people rights and create streamlined procedures for them to avail of these rights,” Sharon Mathew tells HerStory

A 2018 graduate of the Gandhinagar National Law University, it was during her university days that Sharon developed a keen interest in environmental law. Subsequently, she joined the Legal Initiative for the Forest and Environment as an associate litigator.

She gained valuable experience in this field after working for two years, representing various NGOs and tribal communities to protect their environmental rights before the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court of India.

“In 2020, I decided to gain experience in environmental policy and joined CPR as a research associate. I work in the Initiative for Climate Change, Energy, and Environment (ICEE), where my primary role is to understand the functioning of the regulatory and judicial institutions of the environment, in general, and air quality in particular,” says Sharon.

The COVIDRights team

Transitioning to COVID-19 litigations

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharon decided to start COVIDRights — a website focused on helping people reaching out to lawyers for pro-bono advice on legal issues arising out of COVID-19 and find information related to their rights.

The idea came to her when she was in a meeting with her CPR colleagues, where one of them shared a story of how their landlord suffered and succumbed to the deadly virus.

“His landlord had been infected with COVID-19 and had sought admission to a hospital for treatment. However, it denied treatment to the landlord despite his worsening symptoms because he did not have a positive RT-PCR report. During the process of getting tested and obtaining a positive report, the landlord passed away. A life, which could easily have been saved, was lost due to a piece of paper,” Sharon shares. 

She adds that the hospital considered the report more essential to receive medical attention than plunging oxygen levels and scorching fever. 

The hospital’s action was ethically wrong and was in direct contravention of a government order and direction given by the Supreme Court, which stated that hospitals cannot deny medical assistance merely because the patient does not have a COVID-19 positive test report. 

This essential right to seek medical attention was not known to the landlord. The rights and procedures created to protect the citizens are of no use without the citizens being aware of them. 

In fact, multiple lives have been lost due to the lack of access to these various orders and directions.

What does the platform do?

Sharon’s website COVIDRights India collates all such orders and directions passed by the central or state institutions and creates short explainers of these order’s impact. 

The one-stop portal for all orders passed in the country, specifically to protect the citizens during such trying times, also ensures that the people who are most vulnerable now are aware of their rights while seeking medical attention, vaccination, or any allied aid. 

“By making COVID-19 specific legal orders, judgements, and guidelines accessible to the public, we hope that citizens are better equipped to deal with situations that increase their difficulties and perpetuate injustices in these trying times,” Sharon says. 

From online harassment to operating the CoWIN app

Sharon says that many women are reaching out to COVIDRights India for legal advice on how to deal with online sexual harassment. 

“In these trying times, several women have posted their mobile numbers online for COVID-19 community resource toolkits. As a result, they have been on the receiving end of many unwanted and sexually explicit messages from users on social media. We are currently advising them on how best to protect themselves, and take legal action against those who harass them on social media or through phone calls,” Sharon highlights. 

The team also received a communication from a law student who said his university was mandating the payment of fees before the semester starts. He has repeatedly sought an extension, but they have threatened him with debarment if he failed to comply. 

She adds, “Our advocate-volunteers Rhythm Buaria and Saksham Madan have been trying to help the student overcome this challenge by referring him to various Supreme Court of India judgements and specific guidelines passed by the Bar Council of India.” 

As per the Bar Council, “centres of legal education must be considerate and compassionate to the hardships being faced” by students during the pandemic, and “frame flexible alternative scheme(s) and easy instalment-based payment plans” without imposing penalties, debarring students, or preventing access to classes. 

The team has also received a communication from an individual in Kerala, currently located in Dubai. His elderly parents in India wanted to get vaccinated, but they didn’t know how to operate the CoWin portal, which requires a high degree of digital literacy.

Operational challenges 

After building the website, Sharon’s friends — Aman Shukla and Mandakini Chandra — advised her on how to present the information and the website’s objective clearly, comprehensively, and in an aesthetically pleasing way. 

The collation of all relevant orders, directions, circulars, notifications, etc., passed by various ministries, governments, and courts has been a challenge for the team. 

Each state has its own set of procedures created by the state governments and the High Courts, besides the orders and directions of the central government and the Supreme Court. 

The team received several requests from lawyers and students who were interested in compiling and uploading court orders. Vaishnavi Prasad, a law student from NLU Jodhpur, has volunteered to find and upload new orders. 

“Our community of lawyers and researchers have been instrumental in updating the website with these orders and directions so that no relevant information falls through the cracks. Some of these circulars are also in regional languages, and the local lawyers have been instrumental in translating these documents to make it more accessible to all,” highlights Sharon. 

Though the website is meant to increase awareness among people of their rights, it cannot achieve this goal if people do not know such a website exists. Sharon says the platform’s social media and outreach team has been essential in spreading the word about the website. 

Team and future 

The COVIDRights volunteers have helped him with this. At present, COVIDRights has a core team of nine people and over 15 volunteers. So far, the team has received 20 legal queries, filed seven legal notices, and has one medical negligence case.

Its Twitter and Instagram accounts are run by — Shefali Mehta (a policy consultant in Delhi), Tanika Godbole (a journalist in Delhi), and Aabhas Soni (a student-intern from Gujarat National Law University). 

This team is monitored by Mumbai-based lawyers Aditi Agarwal and Pratik Bakshi, helping with communications and media outreach.

Although the pandemic has altered the way we lived, its ramifications can be felt not in every sector possible, besides the healthcare segment. 

“The need of the hour is the dissemination of information related to the health sector. However, this need will keep on changing. This website aims to continue to provide the people with easy access to orders and directions passed by institutions to protect their rights — whether its the health sector or any other. We hope to continue to provide legal assistance to citizens in need and update our website in real-time with useful and important COVID-specific court judgements and orders,” adds Sharon. 

Going forward, Sharon says the team would like to file public interest litigation (PILs) to ensure equal access to COVID-19 related healthcare, especially to citizens who have been turned away unlawfully. 

“We must ensure that the right to access COVID-19 specific healthcare is safeguarded and ensured by the state during the pandemic. Also, as time goes on, we hope to develop better ways to reach communities who lack access to well-developed communications devices and infrastructure,” Sharon concludes. 

Edited by Suman Singh