The Covid-19 pandemic is not an excuse to trample on human rights


The dreaded Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the globe 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. It is spreading across the world at such a ferocious speed that in only four months it has infected more than two million people  and caused more than 100 000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In short, our lives will never be the same again. Our world has changed. We live in fear of either contracting the virus or hearing that our loved ones are infected, will fall ill and possibly die.

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 beginning 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 scheduled to last 21 days, but was later extended to 35 days. Many other countries across Africa used their own constitutional provisions to pronounce forms of restrictions, with Botswana declaring the longest state of emergency, which is set to last six months.

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

Healthcare is a human right

Firstly, the 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, the United Kingdom and the United States have struggled to defend their populace, particularly the aged and other vulnerable groups, who have died in large numbers.

The fear remains: if this disease could cause such mayhem in the developed world, what will be the result when it finally engulfs the poorer countries of the Global South that have very weak or non-existent health delivery systems?

Labour rights deserted

Second is the near universal desertion of the labour rights of the frontline health workers who cried out for adequate personal protective equipment (PEE). 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 doctor Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who fervently pleaded for PPE from the National Health Service, makes him one of the martyrs of this disease.

May their story be a lesson, especially to the political elites in Africa, who rarely put enough effort into the health systems of their countries. Instead, too often, they display more passion for luxury cars instead of ambulances, private jets instead of hospitals, and gratuitous luxuries instead of basic medical supplies.

Gender-based violence

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 UN Women. Many women and girls have been forced to undergo lockdown at home or in the same communities as 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 United Nations secretary general António 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.

Security-force abuses

Fourthly, the enforcement of lockdown measures by 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, 26 human rights complaints were made on the first day of the lockdown, including one suspected case of murder. In Rwanda, five soldiers were arrested, for allegedly raping women. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised for “police excesses”, which 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 in which security forces were 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 coronavirus does.

In his remarks to the UN Security Council on April 9, 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 vulnerable and marginalised people the most. To achieve fair, democratic and inclusive societies, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic should not worsen the human rights situation; instead, it should accompany the ongoing struggles to remove structural and cultural settings that make hunger, disease and violence spread.   

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

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Webster Zambara
Webster Zambara

Dr Webster Zambara is a project leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He recently spent eight days building the capacity of women mediators in Cameroon at the invitation of United Nations Women

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