Marginalized groups, including LGBTI+ people, sex workers, drug users, and those experiencing homelessness were disproportionately affected by Covid-19 regulations that exposed them to further discrimination and human rights abuses, said Amnesty International in a new report.
The report was based on an online survey of 54 civil society organizations in 28 countries. The report shows how an overly punitive approach to the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations saw marginalised groups fined, arrested and jailed for non-compliance with public health measures. More than two thirds of survey respondents (69%) said that state responses to Cavid-19 had exacerbated the negative impact of pre-existing laws and regulations that criminalized and marginalized the people they work with. Of these. 90% reported that the communities they work with were specifically targeted and/or disproportionately impacted when Covid-19 measures were enforced.
Among other punitive measures, organizations reported the widespread use of times, arrests, cautions, written warnings and police orders to “move on” or stay away from a public place.
Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Policy said though Covid19 measures may have varied from country to country, the governments’ approach to tackling the pandemic have had a common failing. An overemphasis on using punitive sanctions against people for non-compliance with regulations, rather than supporting them to better comply.”
When governments use punitive approaches to enforce public health measures, it simply makes it harder to comply. People who lost their livelihoods overnight and people experiencing homelessness were criminalized for not adhering to Covid-19 measures, rather than being supported to access housing or other essentials.
“This short-sightedness left these groups at the mercy of violent and discriminatory policing and drove people to take riskier decisions to meet their basic needs, resulting in preventable illness, deaths and a wide array of human rights abuse,” he said,
The overarching majority (71%) of the 54 organizations who responded to Amnesty International’s survey stated that people from the communities they work with, including sex workers, people who use drugs, LGBTI people and people in need of abortion, were punished for breaching Covid-19 measures. According to the Mexican human rights organization Elementa, the country’s punitive “war on drugs” has enabled police forces to target people who use or possess drug through the enforcement of Covid-19 related measures. In an alarming case that sparked widespread protests, a construction worker, who at the time was under the influence of drugs, was arrested in the western state of Jalisco, allegedly for not wearing a face mask. He died in police custody days later. In Belize, Indonesia, Mexico Nigeria, Uganda, the Philippines, Tanzania, and UK, civil society organizations working on issues including LGBTI rights, drug policy reform, the rights of sex workers and ending homelessness, have reported that marginalized communities have seen an increase in surveillance and harassment from law enforcement and have been disproportionately affected by arrests, fines and detentions during the pandemic.
In Argentina, a sex worker-led organization reported police violence against transgender sex workers, including “beatings, searches and arbitrary detentions” and that sex workers were harassed by police for quarantine violations when they went to the supermarket or the neighbourhood pharmacy.”
STIGMA AND BARRIERS TO SOCIAL PROTECTION, HEALTH AND ADEQUATE HOUSING
The report said that the states’ reliance on punitive Covid-19 measures created additional obstacles to accessing essential services and support, especially for people experiencing poverty and systemic discrimination. Marginalised groups were often blamed, including by public officials. for breaching Covid-19 regulations and for spreading the virus. This has, in turn, fuelled violence against marginalized groups and discouraged them from seeking medical care because they fear being arrested, detained or judged.
Among those disproportionately impacted were people working in the informal sector or in insecure employment. In Nepal, many Dalits who live below the poverty line and rely on daily wages, faced extreme debt and hunger due to the increased challenges of the pandemic.
Organizations also reported that stigma towards LGBTI people, for example, resulted in their exclusion from state and municipal food donations and crisis centres in countries including Indonesia and Zambia.
Covid-19 measures further had a negative impact on the provision of essential health services. In particular, access to community-run services and outreach projects aimed at marginalized individuals became severely restricted or completely unavailable as health systems pivoted their attention to respond to Covid-19. In Canada, medical clinics run in partnership with health authorities at sex worker outreach projects were cancelled. Similar concerns were reported regarding widespread closures of community-run health clinics in East African countries.
In some countries, the Covid-19 pandemic was exploited to further restrict access to essential health services, such as harm reduction services and abortion. In India, the organization Hidden Pockets Collective, which advocates for sexual and reproductive rights, reported that the government initially failed to recognize abortion as an essential health service. The stigma related to abortion also meant women felt unable to tell police why they were leaving their homes for healthcare during lockdown.
“Rather than relying on punitive measures that places all the responsibility and blame on individuals who already faced systematic discrimination, governments should have focused on protecting human rights for all and ensuring that marginalized communities have access to universal healthcare and essential services for their protection,” said Rajat Khosla.
“This is a crucial lesson that governments must take into account while negotiating a treaty to improve pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the auspices of the WHO. Putting human rights at the heart of government efforts to address public health emergency responses is not an optional consideration, it is an obligation.”