The severe impact of the pandemic across the globe has exposed flaws of social, economic and political models, challenged our societies, tested our collective humanity, and aggravated inequalities. As the lack of social protection measures persisted, pre-existing inequalities, injustices and gaps in human rights protection have become more pronounced.
As the pandemic rages on, here are four areas of growing concern for human rights.
1. Weakening democratic practices
The often strong measures imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, such as movement restrictions and states of emergency, raised serious challenges regarding the functioning of good government, its relationship with its citizenry, as well as the protection of fundamental freedoms.
Powers of executive branches were extended, also disrupting the holding of free and fair elections, as seen in the Kyrgyz Republic and Belarus, and the day to day work of parliaments and the judiciary. The states of emergency have been used as a pre-text for postponing elections and reducing opportunities for competitive campaigning and politics. As an example, in Serbia protests were sparked by alleged underreporting of COVID-19 cases by the government in order to protest alleged misreporting of data.
The exceptional powers given to executive branch have also created conditions for misuse and abuse. There have been reports of police and security forces using excessive force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews. In incidents in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, police sealed the doors of residential buildings, with hundreds of inhabitants inside — including some who already had Covid.
In most countries, parliaments and judiciary have significantly limited their activities during the pandemic, due to limited training of civil servants in using digital tools but also due to overstretched and under-funded capacities. Leaving a gap on the ability to safeguard and control measures has led to weakening checks and balances.
2. Enhanced state surveillance and impact on personal freedoms/privacy
In the name of containing the spread of the virus, there has been a proliferation in various forms of state surveillance over citizens, including through digital means. Data protection laws were amended in Armenia and Ukraine that provided governments broader powers to access personal data or location. Many states launched contact tracing apps which lacked safeguards for data and privacy protection and deployed electronic permits for movements, drones for policing, and facial recognition technologies to enforce quarantine. The mass exposure of personal health data led to sparks of hate speech and discrimination against people whose identities were exposed or leaked.
3. Restrictions on freedoms of information and expression
Restrictions were imposed in many countries to freedoms of media, information and expression, limiting the media’s ability to fight misinformation and fake news. This happened at a critical time when it was important for citizens to learn about the virus and follow proper guidelines. While some governments imposed harsh sanctions for misinformation — such as large fines, e.g. 995 euros in Tajikistan to US$10,000 and imprisonment of up to 10 years in Uzbekistan, some of them — Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia — revoked such sanctions amidst public pressure. Independent journalists, citizens and politicians were arrested and fined for publishing information revealing the true Covid-19 situation on social media, often without any clear criteria, as in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Turkey. Governments started a more rigorous monitoring of social media accounts to address pandemic disinformation. Simultaneously, there have already been significant issues relating to misinformation, particularly in regards to conspiracy theories about the “Chinese origins of the virus”. This resulted in the spread of discrimination, stigmatization and the dissemination of hate speech targeting minorities, refugees, Chinese and Jewish people, women, and the Roma community.
4. Unequal impact of pandemic on vulnerable populations
We’ve seen a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people who were already disadvantaged, which pushed vulnerable communities even further behind. Although the virus is a threat to all of us, people who were already in vulnerable situations are suffering more intensely from both the health and the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The latest issue of UNDP’s Voyages features stories of Nana Chkareuli from Georgia, Ila Tovmasyan from Armenia and many others which show just that.
While physical distancing was doable for some, groups with lower income faced an impossible dilemma between going to work and exposing themselves to higher risk of Covid, or staying home and not being able to put bread on the table. In our region alone, pandemic has led to the loss of 19 million full-time equivalent jobs and 10.6 percent income from labour.
The elderly and disabled poor who were already lacking access to basic services before the pandemic, experienced extreme obstacles in accessing essential support services, inability to communicate, access information and their stigmatization increased.
The crisis and lockdowns deepened pre-existing gender inequalities, including lack of women’s access to social protection services, their disproportionate share of unpaid care work, increasing gender-based violence and loss of income.
The working migrants in the region and in Russia and Europe have faced severe challenges followed by imposition of quarantine measures, travel restrictions, job losses and closure of businesses. This has already led to a drop in remittances across the region, a key factor in economic support to many countries. Central Asia migrants needing to return home as a result of the crisis were not always supported in doing so.
Last but not least, factors such as living in crowded and poor living conditions, food insecurity, and insufficient access to health services — as well as to lack of technology devices for the online education their children, have made displaced communities, including refugees, more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 as well.
How do we move forward?
Fortunately, many states in our region have started to adapt and deliver key services, such as provision of income support, emergency food supplies, access to healthcare and social protections, guided by human rights principles, i.e. protecting the most vulnerable people from the adversities of this crises and helping them get back on their feet.
At the same time, the main challenge posed by the pandemic still persists: how to ensure the balance between public safety on the one hand, and the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms on the other. Pandemic should not lead to weakening of democratic values and used as an excuse for human rights violations. The restricting measures on freedoms of information, expression, movement, assembly and privacy should be proportional and legitimate to the threats posed by public health crisis and are applied in compliance with human rights obligations.
As governments are developing policies and preparing for life after the pandemic, we must continue focusing our attention on prevention of casualties and addressing the needs of those who are both at high risk of contracting the virus and are hit the most by the measures taken to contain it.
Editor’s Note: Covid-19 is much more than a health crisis. Across the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, the pandemic has already left devastating scars on societies and economies. At the heart of that impact are the vulnerable communities feeling it the most.
The latest issue of Voyages: Surviving a Pandemic takes a closer look at people who are fighting hard to survive a threatening present and an uncertain future.
Experience the new issue of Voyages now.