The Coronavirus in the Middle East: Its Impact on Sectarianism and Refugees

The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.

An image showing Shia Muslims visiting a shrine.
Shrine visitation. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Sectarian Conflict

The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.

Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.

 

An image showing a Syrian refugee camp.
A Syrian refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Refugees in the Middle East

There have been refugees in the Middle East for the past several decades, but the number of refugees significantly increased after the Arab Uprising in 2011. Because refugees often live in destitute conditions, the coronavirus outbreak would prove to be disastrous for them. Once a case of the coronavirus reaches a refugee camp, there will be little to nothing that can be done to stop its spread; large families live within the same tent, usually only five feet apart from other nearby tents. For this reason alone, social distancing is not an option for refugees living in camps, highlighting the intrinsic privilege of others’ ability to practice and call for social distancing. In addition to this problem, refugees also do not have access to the resources necessary for sanitization, namely due to lack of access to clean water. Further, there are often no established healthcare systems within refugee camps, making it difficult for them to access resources that would be needed to aid infected individuals. Even if refugees were to seek health care outside of the camps, it is not guaranteed that they would have access to this care. For example, many refugees are internally displaced in war-torn countries where hospitals have been demolished and those that are still standing are severely lacking in resources. Further, even when refugees resettle in other countries with established health care systems, it is not incorrect to assume that nationals of that country will be given preference over refugees for treatment and access to resources.

Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example,  many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.

Responding to COVID-19 in Developing Countries: An Appeal from Our Friends at Nashulai Maasai Conservancy in Kenya

Photo showing Maasai men standing next to each other in a field.
Maasai men at Nashulai Conservancy. Source: nashulai.com

Just a few short months ago, the IHR hosted Nelson and Maggie Reiyia from Kenya who spoke to us about Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, wildlife conservation, preservation of culture, and how to empower whole communities from the inside out, especially girls and women.

How long ago this seems now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The impetus of this blog post is Nelson and Maggie’s desperate appeal to help support their people who have been hit extremely hard by this crisis, and to show how COVID-19 affects people in the developing world.

COVID-19 in developing countries

While we have raised awareness of what this crisis means for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our own society, having to deal with a pandemic in developing countries is a whole different endeavor. The virus itself and the sickness it causes are only half of the danger. Major societal issues such as widespread poverty, economic deprivation, and lack of access to water, food, sanitation, and healthcare present huge challenges for people in the Global South. The COVID-19 crisis threatens already fragile economies and has the potential to negatively impact human rights, education, basic resource allocation, and food security. Under-resourced healthcare systems and hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, creating a probability for higher death rates. A majority of people in developing countries also lack access to water and soap, increasing the likelihood of infections and facilitating the spread of the disease. In addition, there are no social safety nets or government bailouts for workers and businesses, exacerbating scarcity, political struggles, violence, and poverty.

Women and children talking in Maasai house.
Women and children in a Maasai house at Nashulai Conservancy. Source: Nora Nord, nashulai.com

In other words, it is not just the virus that threatens people’s lives in developing countries, but the whole context – poverty, underdevelopment, structural violence, lack of government resources to respond to the pandemic – that puts lives in peril and threatens the existence and survival of whole communities.  People in developing countries are doubly at risk.  This crisis will leave deep scars, not only with regards to lives lost, but also with regards to international development gains made in the last decades in development, human rights, and human dignity. These are the issues Nelson and Maggie are afraid of. They are not only worried about the immediate impact of this crisis on their people, but also about the setback this crisis will cause to the wildlife, economic, and cultural advances that have sustained and elevated their community for the last years and made Nashulai indispensable for their society. Their people, their project, and their way of life are in peril of survival.

What COVID-19 means for Nashulai Conservancy

Nashulai is a community-led conservancy in the Maasai Mara in the southwestern part of Kenya, close to the border to Tanzania. The Maasai are an indigenous community of strong and brave warriors, but poverty and lack of development have negatively affected their quality of life. Most Maasai exist on less than $1 a day, depending mostly on their livestock for food and income. More recently, due to Nashulai’s efforts, the community has been able to garner revenue through tourism by offering safaris and running guest houses and camps. About 2,000 people live on Nashulai’s 6,000 acre conservancy, and an additional 3,000 people live in the surrounding communities. Most of them reside in traditional Maasai villages, in which small dwellings arranged in a large circle for community living. Women, men, and children live together in small spaces and share food, resources, and chores with one another. Men mostly look after cows, sheep, and goats or work in local tourist camps and lodges, while women prepare food, raise children, and make jewelry and art work to sell to tourists. Livestock is sold on twice-weekly open markets in exchange for grains, oil, salt, and other basic necessities.

Picture showing a Maasai man with his cattle in a Maasai village.
The Maasai live in close-knit communities where women, men, and children of different families share all aspects of everyday life. Source: Marianne Nord, nashulai.com

COVID-19 has put all of this in danger. The markets are closed due to government safety measures, leaving people without food and without income. Tourist streams have run dry, which means no money and no jobs (90% of employed Maasai rely on the tourist industry). The communal way of Maasai life is in direct opposition to the guidelines of social distancing and self-isolation. There is no running water in Maasai homes, making constant handwashing not an option. Healthcare in the rural areas of Kenya is difficult access in the best case, and Sekenani health clinic in the conservancy is not equipped to deal with COVID-19 cases. It is unclear what should happen to people who become infected. There is a lack of information and education about the crisis, and an absence of guidance of what the WHO guidelines of handwashing, social distancing, and self-isolation and quarantine mean for people in places like Nashulai. There is no electricity beyond solar power, and while some people have phones or radios, spreading news and information is extremely difficult.

The situation is dire. People are starving.

Nelson and Maggie have developed an emergency plan to provide each household with basic food items, to repurpose part of Nashulai’s tourist camp to isolate sick people, and find ways to educate the community about safety measures and health. They have established a strategy on how they can become self-sustaining in terms of food production and continue their important conservancy work over the next months. However, because their stream of revenue has been cut, they rely on us, their friends, to support them, the Maasai people in their community, and the long-term survival of their project.

Please visit Nashulai Maasai Conservancy’s website if you would like to learn more and/or if you would like to donate to Nashulai Maasai Conservancy’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

Impact of Covid-19 in Conflict Zones

A photo of 3 medical professionals in masks and white suits carrying testing machines in war-torn Syria
Medical professionals in war-torn Syria fear the worst after first case reported. Source: Yahoo Images

“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on. 

While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso. 

Syria

Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.

Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely. 

A young Yemeni man sits atop the rubble with his face in his palm grieving the destruction of his home
Source: Yahoo Images

Yemen

The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid. Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen. 

Burkina Faso

On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”

Bumper sticker that says "All people are created equal members of One Human Family"
Source: Yahoo Images

Against a common enemy?

Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

Breathing Lessons: Disability Rights in the Wake of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has provoked an unprecedented reality for much of the global population by streamlining widespread bureaucratic frustration, health anxiety, and social distancing. Most people know that older adults and people with underlying health conditions are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, although many people fall under both these categories and identify with a disability. Also, due to the limited resources available to treat people with COVID-19, concerns have emerged about who receives what type of care. This would force health providers with the grim task of dictating whose lives are worth saving. This blog addresses concerns about rationing care amid the influx of COVID-19 patients and how this might affect the largest minority group in the United States (26%) and world (15%), people with disabilities.

Word Health Organization suggests COVID-19 is particularly threatening to people with disabilities for a list of reasons: (1) barriers to implementing proper hygienic measures, (2) difficulty in social distancing, (3) the need to touch things for physical support (e.g. assistance devices; railings), (4) barriers to accessing public health information, and (5) the potential exacerbation of existing health issues. These issues add insult to injury because, even without COVID-19, people with disabilities by-and-large receive inadequate access to health care services. This is largely due to the competitive nature of health systems which value profit maximization and, thus, disadvantage people with disabilities as consumers in the health care market.

Recently, select states and hospitals have issued guidelines for health providers that would potentially deny people with disabilities treatment for COVID-19. Two entities, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Washington State Department of Public Health (WSDPH), have recently come under scrutiny because of their efforts to fulfill such guidelines.

ADPH’s Emergency Operations Plan suggests that ventilator support would be denied to patients with “severe of profound mental retardation”, “moderate to severe dementia”, and “severe traumatic brain injury”. This controversial protocol has recently grabbed the attention of Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and The Arc thus leading to a complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding discrimination toward people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

With Washington notoriously being one of the first COVID-19 hotspots, WSDPH and the University of Washington Medical Center have come under fire for their plans to develop a protocol that would allow health providers to access a patient’s age, health status, and chances of survival to determine treatment and comfort care. These efforts have been confronted by Disabilities Rights Washington with their own complaint to OCR that declares any medical plan that discriminates against people with disabilities effectively violates the their rights and is, therefore, unlawful.

OCR swiftly responded to these concerns, as well as those from Kansas and Tennessee, by stating that, even in the case of pandemics, hospitals and doctors cannot undermine the care of people with disabilities and older adults. OCR Director Roger Severino exclaimed, “We’re concerned that crisis standards of care may start relying on value judgments as to the relative worth of one human being versus another, based on the presence or absence of disability,” and “…that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care.”

Also, with New York currently having most of the U.S.’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, they may very well be the first state to face the imbalance of available ventilators and patient demand. Disability advocates have recently decried verbiage in New York’s Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act that could provide immunity from civil rights for some patients. Thus, U.S. state and federal powers are playing tug-of-war with the status of disability rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Not Today #COVID19 Sign Resting on a Wooden Stool.
Not Today COVID-19 Sign on Wooden Stool. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons.

However, these concerns are not limited to the U.S. In the developing world, many people with disabilities are segregated from their communities in overcrowded facilities, while thousands of others are shackled and incarcerated. This weak enforcement of disability rights positions people with disabilities, in countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Russia, at-risk of further inhumane treatment by receiving limited or no appropriate care related to COVID-19. As a result, Human Rights Watch urges state and local authorities to return these populations to their families and demand they provide needed support and services within their communities.

Nearly every country in the world has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which aims to fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities. More specifically, Article 25 of CRPD suggests people with disabilities have the right to non-discriminatory health care and population-based public health programs. Thus, nearly every person with a disability around the globe is associated with a governmental power that claims to be dedicated to fulfilling the promise of CRPD. However, in the wake of COVID-19, will these words be put into action?

These unprecedented events are a turning point for how we view our bodies, health, and communities. This is also an opportunity to view the world through the perspective of those in your community such as people with disabilities who represent an array of impairments, challenges, and experiences. Despite boredom and apathy being at the forefront of many people’s isolation, images of life versus death surround others, and for a good reason. In these decisive weeks, and likely months, there has never been a greater time for people in the U.S. and abroad to acknowledge that disability rights are human rights.

Coronavirus and Racism

informational poster on coronavirus and travel
Coronavirus Public Alert Oslo. Source: Annikdance, Creative Commons.

At this point, I’m sure almost everyone knows about COVID-19. With schools shutting down, conferences being cancelled, and travel being restricted, even those in uninfected areas are affected. However, while some of us are most worried about washing our hands and not touching our faces, some people have to worry about discrimination. Those of East Asian descent are being discriminated against all over the world, whether they’re from China or not, whether they’ve been in infected areas or not, whether they’re sick or not. COVID-19 is bringing out racism that has laid dormant, and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time it has happened.

Historically speaking—especially before the scientific knowledge we have now—large outbreaks were blamed on minority groups. In 14th century Europe when the Black Death occurred, many looked for an answer, and when they couldn’t find an answer, they found a scapegoat: the Jews. They were seen as nonconformists by the Christian majority and were subsequently blamed for the outbreak that would be known as the Black Death. Many were tortured until they made false confessions and killed, and their persecution continued centuries later.

Since then, almost every major outbreak has illuminated underlying racism within the global community: when syphilis appeared in Renaissance Europe every country blamed another; Irish immigrants were blamed for the 1830 cholera outbreak; and Mexicans and others from Latin American countries were discriminated against during the Swine Flu epidemic in 2009.

Most recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 brought out racism towards those of African descent. College admission was denied to two Nigerian students to Navarro College, and a Guinean high school soccer player attending school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania was heckled by the opponent’s fans, who chanted “Ebola” at him. Americans hesitated to shake hands with people of African descent, whether they were American or not, and the US imposed a travel ban to and from West Africa.

What we are seeing now with COVID-19, is similar to what we saw during the 2003 SARS outbreak. While the Ebola outbreak illuminated prejudices towards African Americans, in 2003, those of East Asian descent, regardless of their nationality were discriminated against in certain areas. The three Chinatowns in Toronto, Canada were empty for weeks, East Asians were constantly asked if they were sick when no one else was, and they were avoided when they went out in public. In Canada, there is the stereotype of yellow peril that labels Asians as “unsanitary, lower-class, and alien.” This stereotype obviously found root in SARS and only exacerbated these prejudices.

picture of xenophobia in the dictionary
Spiritual Xenophobia. Source: George Ian Bowles, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, it seems like we haven’t learned from these numerous outbreaks, and the racism and xenophobia along with COVID-19 is way more widespread and way more violent. A man attacked an unidentified woman was attacked on the subway in New York, and reports say that the confrontation was a result of the Asian woman wearing a mask. Like in 2003, the discrimination is not restricted to people of Chinese descent: a man singled out a Thai American lady on a bus in LA. He gestured at her while saying that “every disease ever came from China.” Finally, in Indiana, two men of Asian descent were denied a room at a hotel and told that if they were Chinese, they’d be “picked up and quarantined for two weeks.” All of these attacks were before any deaths occurred in the US.

These incidents aren’t unique to the Untied States either. In London, a student from Singapore was attacked in a busy shopping area. While he was being attacked his assailants told him, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” He was left with fractures on his face, and he might need reconstructive surgery.

The racism that is emerging is not new, it has just been hidden. The fear that everyone is feeling is being redirected towards previous biases. The student from Singapore reported that he had been experiencing racist comments for the entire two years he had been studying in London. Because COVID-19 originated in China, the racism already present towards those of Asian descent has been exposed, and thanks to misinformation, it continues to grow. Fear has been shown to bring out the racism that already exists within people, not cause it.

In times like these it’s important to know the facts because that’s how we fight this discriminatory fear culture: Asians are no more likely to have COVID-19 than the rest of us. No one is any more likely to get COVID-19 because of their race or ethnicity. Despite the virus originating in China, there is no evidence Chinese people or Asians are predisposed to infection. Secondly, just because someone of Asian descent is wearing a mask, it does not mean they’re sick. In many East Asian cultures, it is normal to wear a mask year-round, not just when you’re sick.

It’s important to spread the facts. One of the biggest factors in discrimination is ignorance, so education is the best way to fight it. People are scared, and that is bringing out the prejudices they’ve kept hidden and might not even know they had. Additionally, catch and correct yourself when you think or do something with prejudice. Start improving our global community by improving your own thoughts.

COVID-19 is a pandemic, and it’s a serious infection, especially for the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions. However, the racism and xenophobia are spreading just as fast. As a global community, we shouldn’t add to the burden of this disease by using it as an excuse to be discriminatory.

Human Rights and the Coronavirus

Scene at Atlanta airport
Source: Chad Davis, Creative Commons

As countries around the world continue to fight the outbreak of the coronavirus and deal with the disease is causes (COVID-19), the question arises how this public health crisis affects human rights. It is essential that we not ignore human rights during this crisis, even if our primary focus is fighting the outbreak and finding a cure for the disease. The epidemic and the response to it have a major effect on people’s lives, and thus are guided and impacted by human rights. Human rights cannot be an afterthought, but need to be worked into both public and private responses.

To follow up on my colleague Dr. Peter Verbeek’s earlier blog post, I will focus my considerations on two issues: 1) how public policies and legislation in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19 affect human rights; and 2) the broader human rights consequences of the proposed and implemented public health measures.

May public health policy limit human rights?

Most countries have statutes that allow for limitations to human rights in times of national emergencies or major public health threats. According to international law (and in most democratic states constitutional law), these limitations have to be necessary, proportionate, and related to clear and lawful public aims. They also have to be implemented in accordance with existing laws and the greatest measure of transparency.

In response to the coronavirus, emergency legislation in many countries (see for example in the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia) allows health departments and public health officials to impose a number of measures that affect people’s lives and their human rights. These measures include detaining people to be screened, collecting their health information, and putting them in isolation. People who do not comply with orders by public health officials or obstruct their work, refuse detention, leave a place of isolation, or supply misleading information can face criminal charges. For example, when a woman was evacuated from Wuhan and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in California asked to leave the facility, California authorities issued an order forcing her to stay against her will.

While these types of measures might be necessary during such emergencies, it is worth noting that they do interfere with basic human rights, especially the right to liberty (UDHR Article 3), protection from arbitrary detention (UDHR Article 9), right to privacy (UDHR Article 12), and freedom of movement (UDHR Article 13). Considering the significance of these rights and freedoms and the grave consequences that can come from violating them, it is vital that government policies impede individual freedoms and human rights as little as possible. Further, any interference on human rights has to be based on strongest scientific evidence available (as opposed to, for example, racist or xenophobic justifications).

The ceiling of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Source: United States Mission Geneva, Creative Commons

There are a number of important ways to achieve this.

      1. To ensure the protection of privacy and other rights, only data directly relevant to combatting the coronavirus outbreak should be gathered from individuals. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has wide-ranging powers in case of emergencies, including obtaining clinical specimens and data from persons affected by an outbreak, obtaining data from healthcare facilities, enforcing control measures including quarantine, and seizure or destruction of private property. While some of these measures might be needed to stop the spread of a virus, it is important that the principles of necessity and proportionality are at the front and center of response policies to guarantee the respect for human rights.
      2. Crisis-related messaging should be led by scientists with the assistance of government officials, not the other way around. The consequences of abusing public health threats like the coronavirus for political purposes was demonstrated in China where censorship and denial led to a worsening of the public health situation. The misuse of the coronavirus outbreak for political purposes has also and continues to happen here in the U.S., which is especially dangerous at this time when trust in the government and political institutions is at an all-time low and independence, objectivity, and usefulness of science and its ability to act in the public interest is divided along partisan lines.
      3. Public health organizations, as well as the government, need to establish official communication channels that remain open for detained and quarantined people. Moreover, those subjected to restrictions such as detention and quarantine should have the ability to appeal their situation and voice their concerns regarding their treatment.
      4. Officials, as well as the public, have to recognize that those in quarantine or detention are in an extremely difficult situation. In addition to their medical state, they are often socially and economically vulnerable. The stigma that often accompanies quarantine and/or detention can lead to exclusion, emotional difficulties, and mental health issues. Similarly, loss of income or jobs can lead to short-term and long-term problems for affected people. For their part, governments should act to mitigate the negative consequences of public health policies and be aware of underlying socioeconomic conditions, potential human rights violations, and structural violence.
      5. The duration and severity of necessary limitations on human rights should be clearly communicated. It is not just the extent of human rights limitations that matter, but also how long they are set in place. The so-called “war on terror”, for example, was originally launched as a response to the terror attacks of 9/11, but it has persisted for decades, with legal authorities extending well beyond their original goals.

The human rights consequences of fighting the coronavirus

This brings me to the second part of my post, which focuses on the broader human rights and societal consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak. As Mary Bassett and Natalia Linos of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights write in the Washington Post, “[e]pidemics emerge along the fissures of our society, reflecting not only the biology of the infectious agent, but patterns of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination.” Beyond the more immediately obvious issues of how quickly the virus spreads, how many people will die, and how our healthcare system is affected, we need to ask ourselves about the societal effects of public health threats.

The most significant question is: who is the public? Who are public health responses designed for? Race, gender, caste, class, migration status, disability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, living conditions (urban v. rural), and other attributes determine the level of inclusion or exclusion of a person or group in society and their vulnerability in case of crisis. Even when measures seem neutral on the surface, public health responses to infectious diseases tend to follow a “utilitarian logic”, which can lead to unintended consequences and discrimination. For example, results are often gendered: Women tend to be caretakers of children and older people, making them the first to have to skip work when children are out of school or elderly parents fall ill. They are also often front-line healthcare providers, and any family-related responsibilities for these women can lead to shortages of available health personnel. Other advice, such as “social distancing”, cannot be upheld in prisons, public transportation, or migrant camps, and are therefore only useful for the privileged who live in their own flats or houses and can use their cars for transportation. In some cases, public health responses emphasize xenophobic or racist tendencies and reinforce societal divisions. There are already a number of stories and occurrences people of Asian descent shared about sneezing or coughing in public and experiencing responses ranging from angry looks to outright racist comments. Also, not all people have access to information if it is not prepared in minority languages, accessible formats, and spread through different means (e.g., illiterate people will need audio or visual announcements).

A bag with the word "health" on it overflowing of money
Source: 401kcalculator.org, Flickr Creative Commons

Arguably, the people affected worst by this crisis are those of low socioeconomic status, and often they face double or triple discrimination. Many low income and hourly workers do not get sick days or sick pay, which means to become infected and quarantined could result in  job loss, and potentially the loss of savings (if they have any), and potentially housing, cars, and other important possessions.  For poor children, school closings might mean that they miss their only meal of the day. Moreover, not all households in the U.S. have running water, making advice like “wash your hands” difficult to implement. At worst, by transferring public preparedness responsibilities to individuals without taking human rights into account, we reinforce “entrenched patterns of privilege and deprivation across social determinants of health.”

This situation is particularly problematic in the U.S. healthcare system, as it excludes people based on employment and/or immigration status and on the availability of financial resources. The large number of people without access to health insurance will not have the same level of information, testing, or treatment available to them as those with health insurance, and they face additional worries about financial burdens associated with seeking care. Further, private companies can decide how much to charge for treatments of the virus or vaccines without concern about affordability.

In my mind, a purely market-based allocation of healthcare resources in times of COVID-19 is not only unethical, but a human rights violation. Article 25 UDHR calls for everyone to have “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” How far we are from this ideal! Viruses and pandemics don’t care about a person’s legal, economic, or social status, but because of lack of human rights-based public health responses, crises will have differing impact on rich, privileged people as opposed to poor, disenfranchised populations. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated, “people who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.” The search for an inclusive public health response and a more equitable and accessible healthcare system is even more urgent and important in times of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

people in a mirror
Distorted world? Source: Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons

Where does this leave us?

What happens next and the way our political leaders handle this crisis is therefore crucial. If authorities take a heavy hand, twist the truth, and/or compromise hard fought for fundamental freedoms and human rights, the public might be less willing to cooperate in a future crisis situation. Successful interventions in public health crises do not only depend on the level of control issued and the sophistication of medical responses, but also, and most importantly, on whether or not the people trust the government to handle the crisis, to communicate transparently, and to be accountable to its citizens. It also depends on solidarity and community building – whether people cover their coughs and sneezes, self-isolate when they think they got infected, and not hoard scarce supplies to the detriment of others. Public participation and agency of all people is therefore a key component of managing the disease successfully.

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and my colleague Peter Verbeek pointed out, it is vital to structure any response to the coronavirus outbreak holistically, and that includes respect for and protection of human rights. It means to develop a transparent public response based on principles of equity and accountability for all actors involved, including the private sector. It also requires taking care of those most vulnerable in a crisis and protecting the most marginalized in a society, both medically and economically. Human rights cannot be an afterthought in epidemics. How governments handle the coronavirus and their response to COVID-19 might as well set a precedent for human rights in the future. Let’s hope that this crisis will be an opportunity to see the value of human rights, public participation/democracy, and multilateralism.

For more information about the coronavirus and COVID-19, medical advice, and how to protect yourself, please see UAB’s COVID-19 Resources and the updates provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

 

I would like to thank Dr. Robert Blanton and Dr. Courtney Andrews for their comments on this piece.

A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us

by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Program Director MA Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights)

A picture of a girl with a surgical mask covering her mouth and nose
Source: Yahoo Images

On March 6, 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement calling for an holistic human rights based approach to combat COVID-19. She wrote, “As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken.” However our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.” She added, “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.” 

To heed Dr. Bachelet’s call we must remind ourselves of the fact that human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. We also must recognize that the essence of human rights is human dignity. All human rights arise from it and all human beings are born with it and posses it throughout their life span. Human dignity is not measured on a sliding scale. To illustrate, there is no difference in human dignity between that of the office holder of the Presidency of the United States and the migrant at the US Southern border. The accused in the court proceeding has the same human dignity as the judge presiding over her case. The convict and the prison guard do not differ in their human dignity. The human dignity of the disabled veteran is the same as that of the person pushing her wheelchair. And the human dignity of the COVID-19 patient in the isolation ward is the same as that of the health-care worker taking care of him. 

The recognition of our shared human dignity and the safeguarding of the rights that arise from it is a powerful unifier in troubled times. Now that we are faced with a near global outbreak of an until recently unidentified corona virus we can stand united in the recognition that every person on this Earth has an irrevocable right to health care and security in the case of illness (UDHR, Article 25). With rights come responsibilities, and the unifying power of universal human rights is the way that each of us in accordance with our specific context and abilities has a role to play in safeguarding access to appropriate preventive and interventional health care and personal security regarding COVID-19. Our individual roles are necessarily varied, from driving a neighbor without proper means of transportation to a health care facility, to following “doctor’s orders” concerning personal hygiene or social distancing. If infected or taken ill we have a right to receive the best available care and the responsibility to follow the guidelines in place so as to minimize the risk of infecting others. Each of us has a responsibility to listen to the relevant and evolving science as communicated by medical experts, and each of us has the responsibility to comply with the local and national guidelines that are based on this science. 

Some of those taken ill with COVID-19 will die in spite of our best efforts to care for them and protect them. If the fight to save their life is at the cusp of being lost we have the responsibility to see to it that their death reflects the human dignity that they possess. Medical science does not yet have the answer to the question of how to protect oneself conclusively against viral infections such as the current corona virus. That realization, while sobering, should not keep us from doing all we can in terms of what we do know about prevention. There is much that we can do to limit the risk of infection, provided we follow the relevant science. The human rights motto is that any infection, or worse, any death, linked to insufficient preventive measures is one too many, and we all stand united in this through the human dignity that each of us possesses. 

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.

Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.

This is a picture from the event with the speakers facing the attentive audience.
Nelson Ole speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project –  clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.

This is a picture from the event with an audience member asking the speakers a question.
Audience member engaging with the Reiyas. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Particularly within these remarkable endeavors are the Women Empowerment Projects which address anti-FGM, creating lady pads, education, an ambulance for expecting mothers, soap making, and a drama theater club. These efforts highlight the human rights fundamentals to support the education and autonomy of girls and women. Additionally, Nashulai’s ecological efforts demonstrate the need to protect vulnerable environments that threatened by habitat destruction and wildlife depopulation. In sum, Nashulai’s community-based conservation model conveys the importance of ground-up human rights approaches that reject external influence and place community first.

If you would like to support Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, please follow this link.

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

Image of US flag behind barbed wire
Incarcerated America. Source: Pixabay

With the release of the film Just Mercy, which recounts Bryan Stevenson’s experience challenging death row convictions in Alabama and creating the Equal Justice Initiative, the criminal justice system is once again in the news and the topic of the death penalty is being debated. First off, everyone should see the film. Until we do away with the death penalty it is necessary that we confront the realities of it in as many ways as possible. The work that Stevenson is doing is beyond admirable, and unfortunately is still needed, yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about this debate. Partly because it seems so obvious to me that the death penalty should not exist, partly because I have little faith in the current federal administration or the state government to address this, and partly because we have been having this debate about the death penalty my entire life. So I fought that initial feeling and began to think about how I could incorporate criminal justice into my own work on environmental justice and human rights.

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”. In other words, no community should disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental ills, such as pollution, yet in reality, minority and low-income neighborhoods are the ones to bear the brunt. Just as race-based and class-based disparities exist in the experience of environmental ills, they also exist in the criminal justice system and are both the result of broader injustices, such as colonization and white supremacy. African Americans make up 40% of the prison population while representing only 13% of the American population, and Latinos make up 20% of prisons, but only 15% of the population. Low-income populations also have higher rates of incarceration then more others.

Although they are not often included in conversations about environmental justice, the US prison population mirrors other environmental justice communities in many ways especially in regards to discrimination, lack of political representation, lack of access to social services and economic marginalization. Minority and low-income individuals are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore are disproportionately affected by inadequate prison conditions. Inmates in the US are further at risk due to their reliance on the state for protection and provision of basic needs, all while dealing with the chronic stress of prison life and lack of adequate health resources. Yet, despite this, the US continues to fail to recognize prison populations as environmental justice communities.

Unjust Prison Conditions

There are currently about 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the US, including those who are awaiting trial, and all of those lives are affected by the inadequate prison conditions plaguing the US.

Pie Chart of US Incarceration
How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States?.
Source: Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer (2018) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org

Prison conditions throughout the country have been so inadequate that courts have ruled that they violate the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these conditions are the result of environmental ills such as excessive heat or cold, exposure to asbestos, lack of drinkable water and exposure to toxic elements. Yet, while some cases have been won no national changes have been made and environmental injustice continues.

  • Graph of Medical Conditions in Texas State Prisons
    Some Medical Conditions Make People Especially Vulnerable to High Temperatures.
    Source: Alexi Jones (2019) Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison, www.prisonpolicy.org
    • In February, inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY were stuck in freezing cells for a week as the temperature dropped to below freezing and heating became almost nonexistent.
    • Prisons also fail to adequately prepare for extreme weather events. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 over 8,000 inmates were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison. Despite the mandatory evacuation, prisoners were forced to remain for several days in flooded cells, with a limited supply of food and drinking water and lack of basic sanitation. Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from flood zones in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.
    • Both prisons and toxic sites are considered undesirable land use and therefore they are often placed in the same area with little to no regard for the health of inmates. 589 of 1,821 federal and state prisons exist within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 being within one mile. These sites commonly contain toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and can cause extensive damage to human health.

Unjust Working Conditions

Prisoners are also vulnerable to numerous environmental ills in their work environments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime” and under this ruling prisoners can be forced to work for no pay. Courts have also ruled that inmates do not have the right to refuse work and can be placed in disciplinary confinement for refusal. While only some states have refused any payment, most inmates make less than a dollar an hour. In addition, inmates are not protected by workplace health and safety regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because they are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In other words, there is no outside agency to hold prisons accountable for occupational safety, unless it is so extreme that is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many work assignments deal with extremely toxic materials, such as e-waste and asbestos abatement, or inherently hazardous practices, such as firefighting, with little regard being given to inmate health.

Prison firefighters have received some attention of late due to the recent wildfires in California, with much of it focusing on the fact that they are poorly paid for such work and often cannot become firefighters after they are released. Another important aspect to examine is the physical toll firefighting takes. Inmates are eight times more likely to be injured while fighting fires than civilian firefighters, and the American Lung Association has warned of the negative health effects from continued exposure to particle pollution and carbon monoxide within forest fire smoke, among other hazardous air pollutants.

Responsibility of the State

Prisoners represent an incredibly vulnerable population, as they are completely reliant on the state, and therefore the state has a responsibility to protect prisoners from serious harm. The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Declaration of Principles even recognizes the principle of ‘‘humanity’’ as being essential and states that ‘‘the dignity of individuals, the rights of all people and the potential for human growth and development must be respected’’. This is because people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The punishment for the crime is the length of incarceration.

Unsurprisingly, the stated principles of the ACA do not always manifest in reality. One such example took place in Louisiana. In 2016 the state made headlines when it was revealed that it spent more than $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an effort to defend its refusal to install air conditioning on death row at Angola prison. The cost to install the air conditioning and operate it would have been $225,000. The state has a responsibility to protect those in its care and it is failing to do so.

Why Bother?

Many may question why we should care about prisoners when many other communities are dealing with similar environmental injustices. Others may say that they should have thought about these things before they did the crimes and that prison is not supposed to be “easy”.

My response would be to watch Just Mercy and critically examine the “justness” of the criminal justice system. To borrow a quote from Professor Nick Hardwick, “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too”.

Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of the concept that incarceration is a necessary evil nor is it a dismissal of the fact that an end to mass incarceration is the most effective way to address the injustices examined in this article.