This week, we focus our weekly round up of news on the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves, following the world-wide Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Around the world, governments are taking unprecedented measures to try to slow down the spread of the virus and manage its impact. This is having an inevitable effect on human rights in many areas including freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, the right to health and protection from discrimination. There will also be a lasting economic impact as entire industries absorb the impact of the control measures, forcing people out of work and in many cases into poverty.
From the U.S.A. declaring a national emergency, to the first cases starting to appear in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, COVID-19 is reaching across the length and breadth of the American continent. Governments from North to South are taking various measures such as increasing testing of all citizens, quarantining travellers, closing borders, closing schools and universities, shutting down entertainment venues and launching awareness campaigns, asking people to self-isolate or take social-distancing measures. So far the Bahamas, Bolivia and Honduras are among countries with the lowest numbers testing positive for the virus.
USA: After his repeated insistence over the last few weeks that COVID-19 was not a pandemic, President Trump has since done an about-turn and finally announced a national emergency on 13th March, making $50 billion available to assist those affected through loss of work, sick leave and medical needs. However, he has come under fire this week for labelling the virus the ‘Chinese virus’, and his Secretary of State calling it the ‘Wuhan virus’, both being accused of ‘fuelling bigotry’ and inciting discrimination towards the Asian community.
Venezuela: At time of writing, Venezuela has confirmed just 36 positive cases of COVID-19 but concern is growing for a health service described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last year as a system that had already ‘totally collapsed’. Some hospitals are even without basics such as water and soap, and HRW is now warning that an outbreak in Venezuela could threaten the whole of Latin America.
Japan: Japan’s Prime Minister Abe enacted a revised law allowing the state to declare a state of emergency, temporarily limiting citizens’ rights, as a measure to control the coronavirus outbreak. Although this step has yet to be taken nation-wide, concerns have been raised about how this will affect the protection of human rights when enacted. Suspicions have also been raised with regards to Japan’s approach to testing and underreporting of cases.
South Korea: Compared to the lockdowns taking place throughout the globe, South Korea has adopted a different approach to the management of the virus. Their focus has centred around making information as accessible as possible in order for people to assess whether they have been exposed to the virus and, if so, be tested immediately. Inevitably, this has come at the cost of privacy as the government enacted a law allowing authorities access to a wide-range of data, including GPS tracking on cellphones and credit cards.
China: As cases of coronavirus decline in China, a senior World Health Organisation official has told UN News that other countries need to learn from China’s experience. He admitted that citizens of Wuhan in particular had paid a high price during the lock-down, but the measures had helped in containing the virus, with travel restrictions in the province now being relaxed.
Italy: The epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe is Italy, recording (at time of writing) 31,506 infected and 2,503 deaths. Italian schools, shops, sporting events and businesses are closed and the people ordered to stay at home except for essential travel, with military vehicles patrolling public spaces. The retail sector employs 15 per cent of all jobs and contributes about 12 per cent of gross domestic product. It is estimated that Italy will soon be in its 4th recession in just over a decade.
UK: The Boris Johnson government had initially taken a different approach to other European countries but this week back-tracked on its “herd immunity” strategy. Stricter measures were announced on 16th March to control the spread of coronavirus, including self-isolation and social distancing. Those over 70, pregnant or with serious health conditions have been asked to not go out unless absolutely necessary and mass gatherings and social events have been cancelled. Supermarkets are beginning to limit ‘bulk-buying’ after customers stripped the shelves of essentials, concerned at the period of isolation. The number of people showing symptoms are growing rapidly and at time of writing, there were 1950 confirmed cases and 71 deaths .
Poland: Central Europe is in a state of emergency, with Poland announcing a ‘state of epidemic threat’, after just 100 coronavirus cases were confirmed. All non-essential shops, schools and restaurants will remain closed for the next 10 days with the possibility of a 20-day extension. The borders were closed on 15th March with no commercial air traffic allowed in or out. Any citizens returning must go into quarantine for 14 days with regular police checks to ensure co-operation. Currently, there are over 200 people infected and and there is concern about the capacity of Poland’s public health system to cope, due to ‘long-standing underinvestment’.
Middle East and Africa
Middle East: The effects of Coronavirus are being felt across the Middle East region with shops, restaurants, universities and schools closing and some countries imposing strict restrictions on travel. Religious sites are also being effected; The al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Shiite Muslim shrine in Karbala, Iraq, are among those closed. Saudi Arabia has closed all mosques except for the 2 holy mosques of Mecca and Medina.
Qatar, with the highest number of cases in the region outside of Iran, announced a suspension of all non-Qatari citizens entering the country and any Qatari arrivals requiring a 14 day quarantine period. Meanwhile concerns grow that Syria’s weakened healthcare system would severely limit its capacity to cope with an outbreak. Yemen has closed its airports to all non-humanitarian flights, fearing a strain on its collapsing resources, as it already struggles to cope with rising numbers of cholera cases after 5 years of war.
Africa: The African continent lags behind the rest of the world in reported cases but has already begun to impose strict measures to contain the outbreak, with Algeria and Morocco both suspending air and sea links with Europe. There are also growing concerns of discrimination towards Chinese and other Asian nationals, with the Kenyan member of parliament giving permission to his constituents to “chase away and stone any Chinese people within their vicinity.” Meanwhile in Egypt, the Government has been accused of supressing the true scale of the outbreak, even arresting those who suggest the numbers are higher than official figures announced.
South East Asia
The spread of COVID-19 has had a severe impact upon rights to privacy, freedom of movement and freedom of expression particularly in countries in the South East Asia region. Governments are engaging in a ‘difficult balancing act’, says Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in attempts to impede the spread of the virus whilst considering the impact these restrictive measures may have.
Singapore: Authorities in South East Asian countries have taken extremely restrictive measures to curb the spread of the virus. Singapore has adopted a policy of ‘contact tracing’ to identify those infected with the virus and isolate them, interrogating them about their movements to track down other potential cases.
Thailand: Two individuals were arrested in Thailand for spreading ‘fake news’ about COVID-19 and charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act which can result in imprisonment of up to five years.
Many countries in South East Asia rank considerably low on the 2019 world press freedom index. It has been acknowledged that these states had been increasing the recognition of civil liberties, however, their extreme response to the spread of COVID-19 seems to mark a reversal of recent progress. COVID-19 poses both a health risk and an increasing danger that authoritarian governments will impose draconian measures, restricting individual rights of privacy and free expression.
West Asia and India
Iran: With the third-highest death toll from coronavirus globally, Iran is considered the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East. March 16th marked the second straight day of Iran’s single-day fatalities exceeding 100 (113 and 129 deaths respectively), yet President Hassan Rouhani continues to rule out general quarantine and is pushing to keep the nation’s borders open. Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has reached out to the United Nations to demand the United States end its crippling sanctions, which he referred to in a recent tweet as ‘Economic Terrorism’. The sanctions have made it extremely difficult to import medication and medical equipment needed to fight the virus.
India: Though the official view within India appears to be that there is no community spread of COVID-19, many believe it is likely the country of 1.3 billion people has many more than the 143 cases reported. India’s coronavirus testing rates remain among the lowest in the world, with criteria for being tested limited to those exhibiting typical symptoms who have returned from a foreign country, been in contact with someone from a foreign country, or a person with the coronavirus. There is a push for a more proactive approach and increased number of testing centres (of the estimated 600 needed there are only 52 around the country), as India faces challenges like overcrowded regions and the spread of misinformation about unproven homeopathic remedies.
Other stories making the news around the world
- Civilians killed in air strike in Somalia (AlJazeera)
- Malawi activists arrested during anti-government protests (AlJazeera)
- Statues stolen from Zimbabwe during colonialism have been returned (AlJazeera)
- Nurses lose their legal action in the European Court of Human Rights after their refusal to perform abortions denied them jobs as midwives in Sweden (BBC News)
- A five-year time limit on bringing prosecutions against soldiers and veterans who have served abroad to be imposed in new UK legislation (Guardian)
- Climate change blamed for floods that have caused 150 deaths in Brazil (Guardian)
- Venezuelan police use tear gas against protestors backing opposition to Maduro (Al Jazeera)
- Brazil extends important disability benefit, overturning a presidential veto (Human Rights Watch)
- Yemen violence escalates as the war enters its 6th year (UN News)
- Journalists from BBC Persian service harassed and threatened in Iran (UN News)
- Squamish Nation members approve the construction of a new urban development in Vancouver (The Guardian)
- Mexico’s President refuses any change of policy following anti-femicide protests (AlJazeera)
- Harvey Weinstein jailed for 23 years after rape conviction (The Independent)