Paris – The coronavirus pandemic has presented a serious test to how different societies and countries can work together to tackle an unprecedented force; potentially stronger than human beings. Many governments and individuals have grappled the situation by acting selflessly and honourably by breaking down current societal and cultural barriers and indifferences. However, human rights abuses have long preceded widespread diseases and in many cases, the novel coronavirus has intensified many deep rooted violations.
Israel’s extreme surveillance
As the virus continues to spread rapidly around the world, so does the fear among many due to the virus’ unpredictable nature. Adding further to that fear has been the different responses and attempts by governments to contain the outbreak. Citizens in Israel have had their very own civil liberties violated by the government’s decision to track cell phones of people with coronavirus or suspected to have contracted the disease. Israel has a longstanding history of violating democratic rights, destroying Palestinian homes, carrying out arbitrary arrests and of course, its contribution to the deadly conflict in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed the emergency regulation without a court order and likened the fight of containing the virus to one of fighting terrorism.
The new step would allow the government to access phone data from individuals testing positive with the virus. They would then document the places the person visited over the coming weeks and collate a list of people the infected person had been in direct contact with. From there, authorities would use the information to contact people who may have been exposed to the virus and demand they go into quarantine. This new measure provoked ripples of backlash from civil rights activists, politicians and health experts, claiming the Israeli government was going too far and the move would excessively damage citizen’s privacy.
Although Israel has skillfully implemented strict travel restrictions and compulsory self-isolations, given Israel’s history of abuse of power, spying strategies must be used carefully to ensure the minimization of privacy infringements. The access to information should be limited to professionals in specific fields related to combating the virus to ensure people’s privacy is protected from any misconduct.
To add to the apprehension and uncertainty of Israel’s intentions, missing from the Health Ministry’s website was information and guidance about the coronavirus outbreak in Arabic. Muhammad Barakeh, chairman of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee which represents Arab citizens and Palestinian groups in Israel, saw a huge lack of information in Arabic about the pandemic and how people would need to protect themselves. With 20 percent of Israel’s population speaking Arabic, this failure by the Health Ministry further cements the deep-seated and ongoing intolerance towards Palestinians. During a ruthless pandemic like this one, there must be no space for discrimination.
Discrimination against Chinese
Whilst the virus originated in China, many have labeled the coronavirus as ‘China’s virus.’ Consequently this has opened the door to fear and xenophobia as numerous reports have emerged of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in countries around the world. Footage online has shown Chinese tourists being attacked, yelled at, spat at and accused of carrying and spreading the disease. Seen as villains, a cough or a sneeze prompts racist remarks and sales have plummeted in Chinese restaurants and many Chinese districts are now ghost towns. Crude jokes, public attacks and racist newspaper headlines are creating an unnecessary and excessive hate and stigma towards the Asian community during a crucial time that requires respect, empathy and empowerment through shared humanity.
Censorship and Freedom of Speech
The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) is concerned for the well being of citizens in countries with totalitarian regimes. Freedom of speech and access to information is already limited if not banned in many countries and as governments work to tackle the spread of the virus, the lengths some are willing to go is threatening basic human rights.
The case in China regarding eye doctor Li Wenliang, is a devastating example of how suppressing the spread of information to safeguard the stability of a country is only worsening the situation. Wenliang was one of the first people to put out an alert about the unknown virus by expressing his concerns in a private chat with medical professionals. However once the post was shared publicly, he was reproached by the authorities. Wenliang died from the virus on February 7. This sparked an outcry among Chinese citizens over the government’s consistent censoring of information and lack of freedom of speech.
Suppressing and manipulating information has and will continue to contribute to the spreading of coronavirus, therefore governments must stop censoring news and relay information in real time to secure the safety of its citizens and the rest of the world.
Denial will equally contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The government of Myanmar continues to stand by its claim that the country has zero cases of the virus. Zaw Htay, the government’s spokesperson announced that the lack of cases is due to the diet and lifestyle of the Myanmar people and that citizens mostly use cash to pay for purchases. Reckless statements such as these are defective and will have detrimental consequences as citizens could believe they are immune during a global pandemic. The government has also warned citizens that they will stop the spread of ‘fake news’ about the virus online, causing many to question the integrity of the government in regards to sharing important public information and allowing freedom of speech.
Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
Another major concern is the impact the virus could have if it reaches and spreads within the Rohingya community. The virus is likely to be spreading undetected through Myanmar and other parts of South-East Asia. Myanmar has close borders with Bangladesh, India, Thailand and China, which all have confirmed cases. It is only a matter of time before it reaches minority communities. In the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Rohingyas are confined to camps or live in partially destroyed villages with no appropriate sanitation should the virus reach them. Bangladesh is home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in refugee camps in close proximity to each other. Although the confirmed COVID-19 cases remain in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation, the Rohingya are extremely vulnerable due to their living conditions. Four to five share a flimsy tent, sleep on muddy floors and struggle to find clean water, soap or hand sanitizer to practice good hygiene, making them exposed to a potential outbreak.
According to UNHCR, there are at least 12 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees living between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon and Iran. As governments prepare their billion dollar coronavirus packages what happens to these stateless people that rely solely on the goodwill of others? It is essential the international community and the United Nations consider and help these minority groups and developing countries by treating and combating the spread of the virus, as well as protecting them and their rights during this crisis.
One of the biggest problems of the coronavirus pandemic is the impact it has had on countries’ labour laws like paid sick leave, working from home and unemployment insurance. Depending on a person’s work, their benefits and how the outbreak may affect them relies heavily on their employer and the rules of each individual country. Workers in some sectors may be able to self-quarantine and work from home entirely, whereas others may be required to continue going to work, making them vulnerable to the disease like those in the public health and services sector. With the virus’ high transmission rate, the question surrounding paid sick leave needs to be urgently addressed. Country’s like the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain offer a minimum two weeks full paid sick leave. Saudi Arabia 30 days and Egypt, 90 days. Additionally, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia offer mandatory medical insurance to their employees. In Egypt, employers are obliged to provide free treatment and medication at an assigned clinic, including free hospital treatment.
As health experts encourage people that are sick to stay home and self-quarantine, for people in some countries, staying home is entirely impossible. The US does not guarantee paid sick leave to workers, which seems like a terrible injustice. Despite congress’ efforts on creating an emergency bill to provide paid leave, millions of American workers have been left out. Workers in small businesses have been affected as the bill exempts businesses from having to offer paid sick leave if the business has fewer than 50 employees. The Times reported that the Labor Department determined that offering paid leave “would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” Companies with more than 500 employees have also been exempt from the bill, however many corporations have said they would voluntarily provide paid sick leave.
With such a confronting challenge as the coronavirus pandemic, governments are being forced to take drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus whilst protecting its citizens that have been directly and indirectly affected. As more people become infected, stock markets fall, schools close, jobs disappear and countries go into lockdown, a united global response has never been so crucial. Overcoming this pandemic means collectively overcoming the deep-rooted and discriminatory imbalances based on wealth, social class, gender, race or religion and protecting the fundamental rights of all human beings.