International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

women_health_workers

Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

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International Human Rights News: Focus on Coronavirus in Conflict Zones

by Amita Dhiman, Lauren Ng, Julia KedziorekPauline CanhamBethany Webb-Strong, Alana Meier

As we all struggle to adjust to a new way of life that includes loss of freedoms, loss of income, food insecurity, healthcare systems under strain, and daily briefings from leaders using the language of lockdowns and death tolls, unknown during peacetime, there are those for whom this, and much worse, is a never-ending daily reality.   An estimated 2 billion people live in areas of conflict and fragility around the world and the ICRC is calling for an immediate response by humanitarian organisations before the virus takes hold in countries ravaged by war.  The UN Secretary General has called for a ‘global ceasefire’  across the world to support efforts in combating the threat of Covid-19.

Our news update this week focuses on five countries most devastated by conflict and least able to confront a new enemy that even the wealthiest of states are struggling with.

Afghanistan

Afghan_healthcentreFollowing decades of war, Afghanistan is not well-placed to contend with an outbreak of covid-19. Many Afghans who had fled to Iran, during the conflict have returned back to their country, creating a burden on the already fragile health care system.  Out of some 200,000 returnees, only 600 had been tested as of March 27 due to inadequate medical staff and equipment.  Afghanistan’s Public Health Ministry have estimated that 25 million could become infected, adding that 100,000 could die, and on 28th March, Kabul, a city of 6 million, went into lockdown.

The UN Deputy Special Representative for the country is urging warring parties to come together to “prioritize national interests”, following in-fighting causing delays in the measures agreed back in February, on American troop withdrawals and Taliban anti-terrorism guarantees.   Human Rights Watch suggested that “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”

In a country with a 50 percent poverty rate and a resilience that has become a way of life, ordinary Afghans are helping each other by making masks, delivering food and landlords waiving rents to ease the burden on the most vulnerable.

Gaza

GazaLast week saw the first two cases of coronavirus in Gaza.  Its delay has predominantly been attributed to the pre-existing border restrictions placed on the movement of people in Gaza.  The two individuals diagnosed had recently returned from Pakistan and have since moved to isolation.  Hamas, the militant organisation governing Gaza, has since closed its street markets and wedding halls, and urged citizens to practice social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Yet with an overstretched healthcare system following the Israel-Egyptian blockade and decades of cross-border conflicts between Israel and Palestine, an impending outbreak carries a high level of concern in Gaza.  In one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the virus could easily rapidly spread.  Combined with the overcrowded conditions, the chronic shortage of medicines, regular power cuts, scarce resources, and lack of adequate medical care has the potential to lead to a “nightmare scenario” in the event of an outbreak.

Despite these concerns, repression from Israeli authorities has persisted, with raids on Palestinian communities continuing, pleas to release 5,000 Palestinians (including children) currently held in jail being refused following positive Covid-19 tests, and a persistent siege on the Gaza strip with no end in sight.

 

Libya

Libya_fightingWar-torn Libya is one of the latest victims of the international coronavirus pandemic with its first case confirmed on 24th March. While to date, only 8 people have tested positive for COVID-19, testing is limited and the failing health care system will struggle to cope if the virus spreads.

With the country split between two rival governments, there will be issues in implementing safety measures to protect citizens from the deadly virus. Since the civil war erupted in 2011, there has been an ongoing shortage of doctors and lack of central authority responsible for the national healthcare system. All borders have now been closed and foreign nationals are prohibited from entering the country. Schools and cafes are closed and prayers are suspended until further notice.

Despite a humanitarian pause being announced, the UN was “alarmed that hostilities have continued around Tripoli”.  Despite January’s truce, the fighting has killed over 1,000 and displaced 150,000 since April 2019. To relieve pressure on the already strained prison system, The Government of National Acord, the internationally recognised government, has freed just over 450 detainees from overpopulated correctional facilities.

Detainees and people in shelters are at paramount risk of infection, which Human Rights Watch predicts could lead to a humanitarian disaster for the country if the virus spreads.

 

Syria

Syria_hospitalOn Sunday, Syria reported its first COVID 19 fatality, heightening fears of the devastation the virus could wreak.  Ten years of conflict in Syria has led to the displacement of over half the population, 6 million of whom remain internally displaced in camps which are unprepared to respond to the pandemic.

Given the extent to which COVID 19 has overwhelmed western healthcare systems, the potential catastrophic risk it poses to Syria is almost unfathomable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that access to healthcare is extremely poor in Syria given bombing of civilian areas and destruction of over 50% of hospitals. The London School of Economics released a research paper on Syria’s healthcare capacity last week stating that the maximum number of cases that can be ‘adequately treated’ is 6,500.

The World Health Organisation has mobilised an urgent response, delivering tests and protective gear.  However, aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies given closure of the border with Iraq.  Human Rights Watch has reported that Turkish authorities are failing to supply water to north eastern areas of Syria, hindering the ability of agencies to protect against an outbreak of the virus.

Mr Pederson, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has called for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for a ‘common effort’ against COVID 19. This has sparked hopes that a coordinated fight against the new coronavirus could unite forces and encourage a political settlement to end the conflict.   However, the situation remains dire as the already vulnerable population of war-torn Syria faces the new threat of a COVID 19 crisis.

 

Yemen

Yemen_Hospital_facemask_2How can Yemen, a country described already as experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, possibly cope with the looming threat of coronavirus?   80 percent of the population is at risk of hunger and disease, 17.8 million are without safe water and sanitation, 19.7 million are without adequate health care and the country has suffered the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, at 2.3 million infected since 2015.

Last week, Yemen entered a 6th year of war, and with fighting continuing to rage, the UN Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire, to focus on the fight against coronavirus, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.  Despite lulls in the fighting during 2019, recent weeks have seen an alarming re-escalation in the conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi led coalition, which includes the US and UK.  A group of UN regional experts have called for warring parties to release political prisoners on both sides, to mitigate the risks of the spread of Covid-19 due to the overcrowded and squalid conditions in detention centres.

Yemen is the only country in the Middle East yet to record a case of coronavirus, due largely to having been placed under siege since the start of the war, with airports closed to commercial airlines and movement in and out of the country severely restricted.  However, the healthcare system in Yemen is already close to total collapse, and with news this week that the US is intending to cut aid funding for the poorest country in the Middle East, officials are warning of disastrous consequences, should an outbreak take hold.

 

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