/ 6 July 2020

Pandemic-induced human rights violations a double tragedy to humanity

(David Harrison/M&G)

The dreaded Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the world has already affected all aspects of our lives in ways that are not only still unfolding, but will be with us for a very long time.

Coronavirus is spreading across the world at such a ferocious speed that globally almost 11 500 000 have been infected and over 500 000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. In short, our lives will never be the same again. Our world has changed. We are witnessing a catastrophe. We live in fear of either contracting it or hearing that our loved ones are infected, will fall ill and possibly die.

In order to mitigate the spread of the virus, there has been a universal inclination towards declaring national lockdowns, a strategy that was first employed by China in Wuhan, the original epicentre of the virus. Many countries soon followed suit with their own forms of restrictive measures as suggested by the World Health Organisation. By the start of the Easter weekend more than 70 countries and territories were under lockdown. 

In Africa, South Africa took the continental lead by declaring a national lockdown from March 26 which was initially supposed to last 21 days but was later extended to 35 days till end of April. Many other countries across Africa used their own constitutional provisions to pronounce forms of restrictions, with Botswana declaring the longest period of six months under State of Emergency.

Tragically, in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, incidents of gross human rights violations have been committed, by omission and commission. These have happened in varied forms, but there are four that draw immediate attention. 

Firstly, provision of adequate healthcare and proper sanitisation are basic human rights. The coronavirus has revealed that even in developed countries of the Global North, this right has not been fully realised. No wonder countries such as Italy, Spain, France, England and the United States struggled to defend their populace, particularly the aged and other vulnerable groups who died in large numbers. The fear remains: if this disease could cause such mayhem to the developed world, what will the result be when it finally engulfs the poorer countries of the Global South who have very weak or nonexistent health delivery systems? 

Secondly, and related to the first, is the near universal desertion of the labour rights of the frontline health workers who cried out for adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The world over, the cries of the health workers have been loud and clear. In some countries such as Zimbabwe doctors and nurses even downed tools.

The tragic death of the British Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who fervently pleaded for PPE for National Health Service, makes him one of the martyrs of this disease who should never be forgotten in history. May their story be a lesson, especially to the political elite in Africa who never take the health provisions of their countries with the same passion they display for luxury cars instead of ambulances, private jets instead of constructing hospitals and lunatic sumptuousness instead of basic medical supplies. Indeed, thanks to the coronavirus restrictive travel measures which made it impossible for them to abandon their people and evacuate themselves to other countries that have built better health facilities. 

Thirdly, and probably most unfortunately, is the sudden increase in cases of gender-based violence across the world as a result of deepened economic stress, restricted movement and social distancing as recently observed by the United Nations Entity for Gender and the Empowerment of Women (UNWomen). Many women and girls have been forced to “lockdown” at home or in the same communities with their abusers at a time when services to support survivors have been disrupted or made inaccessible. 

Thus, the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and the vulnerabilities of women, girls and children which prompted the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres to call for, among other measures, a global ceasefire in the face of exacerbated human rights violations of vulnerable groups. In fact, from their lived experiences, many women and girls fear men more than they fear the coronavirus.

Fourthly, the enforcement of lockdown measures by the security agents has, unsurprisingly, been accompanied by the abrogation of the basic human rights of the individuals and communities being “protected” from the pandemic. 

In South Africa, numerous human rights complaints have been made since the first day of lockdown, including one suspected case of murder. In Rwanda, five soldiers were arrested allegedly for raping women. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised for “police excesses”, that included the murder of a 13-year old boy. In Nigeria’s Delta State, a person was killed for allegedly flouting lockdown rules. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, thanks to social media, several videos circulated of security forces beating and torturing people in broad daylight. 

In many countries we have trigger-happy, truncheon and teargas-enthusiastic police officers whose appetite to apply force before logic is insatiable. Again, they instil more fear among the people they should protect than what coronavirus would do. 

In his remarks to the UN Security Council in April, the secretary-general lamented the “growing manifestations of authoritarianism, including limits to the media, civic space and freedom of expression” in enforcing lockdowns.

The conflation of disease and human rights violations is a double tragedy that will affect the vulnerable and marginalised most. To achieve fair, democratic and inclusive societies, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic should not worsen the human rights situation, but instead, should accompany the ongoing struggles to remove structural and cultural settings that make hunger, disease and violence to spread.   

Dr. Webster Zambara is a senior project leader of Peacebuilding Interventions at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town