Gender and Sexuality at School: Experiences of young people and teachers in combating prejudice in Brazilian schools

By Fabricio Pupo*

A graphic of the international symbols of man and woman with various gender signs on their faces
Source: Yahoo Images
Graphic showing insecurity related to gender and sexuality in school environment
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Gender and sexuality issues are not often discussed, especially in the school environment. The reasons are innumerable, and they have been historically considered controlled themes. In Brazil, the data relating to violence and prejudice are alarming and refer to the discussion of institutional security, especially within environments that are more closely linked to these young people such as school. This statement is verified when analyzing the 2016 data from the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals (ABGLT) on dissenting gender and sexuality youth in the school environment, of which 60.2% of young people feel insecure in their educational institution due to their sexual orientation and 42.8% for the way they express their gender.

Prejudice in the face of experiences outside heteronormativity can silence young people and teachers in the school setting. School is often an arsenal that regulates not only sexuality but also gender.

Graphic depicting statistics on comfort around gender and sexuality topics in school environment
Source: ABGLT (2016)/ Reprolatina (2011)

Silence in the face of the theme and oppression in relation to teaching work

The discourse that school, gender, and sexuality must constitute separate instances has been gaining strength. Reactions such as the Escola Sem Partido Program have motivated the persecution of teachers on charges of political and ideological indoctrination. It emerged in 2004, through the initiative of the attorney of the State of São Paulo, Miguel Nagib, and it has a threatening effect on teachers across the country. It seeks to criminalize teaching work around themes such as gender and sexuality. It is no coincidence that gender and sexuality are part of the themes that the defenders of this initiative point out as being the most permeable to ideological indoctrination since the persecution of these themes constituted an alignment with the agendas of the religious group representing a part of the population that supports moral precepts linked to the extreme right and Christianity.
The need for teaching work in this theme is corroborated by the National Curriculum Parameters (NCPs), they place these themes as transversal and relevant for discussion in educational establishments as well as for the pedagogical intervention process. NCPs are guidelines developed by the Federal Government that guide education in Brazil. They are separated by discipline and adopted by the public and private schools.

The school is a space where it is possible to observe the emergence of the visibility of dissenting gender and sexuality as well as conflicts over these experiences that seek to affirm forms of life hitherto subjugated. However, there are also positive experiences regarding the valuation of gender and sexuality differences at school.
Therefore, the interest in analyzing such experiences evaluated as positive by young people and teachers in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the central-west region of Brazil. The intention was to prioritize the reports that were evaluated by the participants as positive to better understand how they resist a prejudiced reality, which allowed a reflection not only on gender and sexuality but also on the agency of the participants concerning this theme in school institutions of different contexts.

Youth Experiences

School is a very important space for socialization, and it is part of the teacher’s job to ensure this interaction by attending to all representations. The young 20-year-old Sofia, from a private school pointing out something positive affirmed that “the teachers discuss and work on these themes in the classroom”. That corroborates the importance of making the discussion about gender and sexuality common every day.

Aurora, 19 years old, from a private school, in turn, says that she lived “an assumed relationship with a colleague at school”, which points out that, in addition to possible environments for discussion on this topic, the school also makes it a possible experience. The homosexual relationship is seen as different and the school acts positively on this issue when it allows the relationship to be seen.

In terms of school dropout, trans experiences seem to be the ones that stand out the most. For this reason, José Francisco, 25 years old, from a private school, reported: “At school, in high school, I was able to use the bathroom of the kind in which I identify myself. All of this was important, as school avoidance is avoided and dysphoria is reduced, enabling a better use of studies, which was my case”.

Graphic depicting positive experiences school can provide
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

In their school experience, as well as that of many young people, the fact that they can use the bathroom according to their gender identity is the validation of the school’s acceptance of this difference. Another important acceptance reference cited by José Francisco is the social name and the comfort it can generate. According to him, “My positive experience at school took place in some ways … with the social name respected by all employees, teachers and coordinators. The name was on lists, in the closet, in the call and the like”. We can understand what the use of the social name and the bathroom might represent, when we are faced with indexes related to the violence suffered by the trans population. According to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals – ANTRA, in Brazil, 90% of transgender people depend on prostitution to survive.

Teacher’s Experiences

The school is an important space for socialization and discussion, the teacher has a fundamental role in this mediation. In this sense, Rafael, 35 years old, from a private school, informs that the first posture he has is to verify how young dissidents of gender and sexuality are treated by colleagues, then he has a welcoming attitude: “When I notice some isolation and others signs of suffering I try to talk to the person and ask for permission to speak with the coordination and psychologists “. When recognizing the difference in the school environment a teacher meets his daily challenges and at that moment his or her attitude may or may not collaborate with freedom and the recognition of different representations of gender and sexuality within this space.

It is not uncommon that when this theme appears it is linked to certain control efforts through great strategies of knowledge and power. Marcelo, 28, from a private school, positively does not directly refer to a threat: “I try to explain that this feeling for the same sex is normal”. However, he justifies in the sequence: “but I mention the importance of using condoms to prevent STDs”.

Here, it is not a question of questioning the importance of guidelines about the prevention of this type of infection/disease, still there is a risk of restricting the experience of sexuality to a certain threat. One way to avoid this type of approach is to bet on the pedagogical and curricular policy of identity and difference. Teachers who have participated in this research feel unprepared to put this policy into practice. Ana, 42 years old, from a public school, justified this lack of preparation due to the complexity of the theme, pointing to the effects that this might present: “If we are not well grounded we risk to reinforce what has been put in place for centuries”. However, she affirmed that she is interested in the theme and this makes her look for authors that can be helpful to her, but she does not believe that this can happen to all teachers. This scenario points to the urgency of actions that promote a fairer school and that above all, guarantees human rights, for example, the integration of Public Policies, mentioned in the NCPs for sexual orientation. However, the school, or at least part of the teaching staff, seems to be unaware of these policies which hinders practices and attitudes that can promote the resignification of the school space for young dissidents.

Examples of how teachers can create supportive environments that facilitate productive discourse and experience around LGTB issues
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Toward a More Welcoming School

Young people’s experiences show us the importance of bringing the discussion about gender and sexuality to a daily practice within the school environment as we could realize how can the school be a possible place for the awareness of dissident experiences in terms of gender and sexuality. The evasion problem especially of transvestite and transsexual people appeared with the indication of the need to call people by the name that corresponds to their gender identity as well as the authorization for the use of the bathroom by that same self-assigned identity.

Teachers’ experiences value the welcoming attitude toward young dissidents of gender and sexuality which should be demarcated by the recognition of the difference in the school environment. The positive experience of dealing with these themes does not mean that they cannot be linked to speeches that may present them as a possible threat, as an example when dissident affective-sexual experiences are associated with diseases. Even so, some teachers are looking for more knowledge to approach the theme as they do not feel prepared to approach the theme from the perspective of the curricular policy of identity and difference.

Graphic depicting welcoming potential of school to LGTB students
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Finally, even though the NCPs proposing to approach the theme in a transversal way, the legislation seems insufficient to guarantee in the curriculum the presence of the theme in the school as it should be taught. However, even so, the school presents itself as a possible place to resist attempts to criminalize teaching work around gender and sexuality. It is not a matter of minimizing the moral effects of the School without Party Program rather however young and teachers act independently of a “desire” in short they are involved in power relations, there are positive examples that seem to make the difference in terms of gender and sexuality, an experience that can be recognized at school.

*Fabricio Pupo Antunes is a 3rd-year high school student at Colégio Novaescola in Campo Grande – Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. He is a junior researcher in gender and sexuality, supervised by Prof. Dr. Tiago Duque at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, where he is also a member of Impróprias – Research Group about Gender, Sexuality and Differences (UFMS – CNPq). His research has been awarded in important scientific fairs, seminars, and academic congresses in Brazil and abroad with Regeneron ISEF, a finalist in the Behavioral Sciences area this year.

The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

The first is that it is an inclusive right.  This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.”  This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health.  These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health. 

The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements.  Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”  This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.   

The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights.  For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights.  The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.   

Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health 

According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis.  Being healthy is more than just surviving.  Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future. 

Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.  According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years.  This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment. 

Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others  

You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane.  If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm.  This can be applied to mental health as well.  If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health. 

For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy.  The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all.  It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others.  Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself.  We all do it sometimes.  It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs.  Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember. 

 

Human Rights in Times of COVID-19: Public Safety vs. Individual Liberty

The flyer for the webinar with pictures of the three panelists

The tension between the authority of governments to impede on individual rights in times of public emergencies and the implications for human rights is a topic that has come into focus as the world reels from the impacts of COVID-19. On Thursday, May 21, the Institute for Human Rights hosted its first webinar on Human Rights in Times of Covid-19, which focused on how we navigate this tension between public safety and individual liberty. Our panelists included Dr. Kathryn Morgan, the Director of the African American Studies Program at UAB and an expert in civil rights, race, and criminal justice policy, Dr. Natasha Zaretsky, a Professor of History at UAB who focuses on contemporary U.S. culture and intersecting histories of women, gender, and families, and Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of Political Science and Public Administration at UAB who specializes in international human rights with a focus on human trafficking. We are grateful to our panelists for taking the time to share their expertise on this topic as we navigate this difficult time, and we’re grateful to the UAB/IHR community for your interest and engagement. If you missed the webinar and would like to watch it in its entirety you can find it here. Below is a recap of the event. 

Dr. Morgan focused on the implications of this tension for civil rights in the U.S., reminding us that governments do have the authority and the responsibility during a pandemic to impose restrictions on certain rights afforded by the Constitution in order to keep the most people safe. However, as we are seeing, this is not a cut and dry issue, and there is a lot of disagreement over how to keep people safe and keep the economy functioning. To this end, she mentioned three major concerns: one, what kind of restrictions will be put in place?, two, how long will this go on?, and three, how will these measures be enforced? She also mentioned the variable impact these restrictions and the virus itself will have on different sectors of the population, pointing out how this virus is disproportionately affecting black and brown people who are dying at much higher rates than white people. Dr. Morgan also expressed concern over how federal and state responses to the virus will impact people with disabilities, suggesting that times like this often exacerbate discrimination against these vulnerable populations. 

“When we look at service workers. When we look at people who are in essential positions that help to keep society running, even in a shutdown. Many of those people are from marginalized groups. They are exposed to conditions that really exacerbate the problems of exposure to the coronavirus.”

Dr. Zaretsky discussed the way that partisan division and hostility are shaping this conversation around individual liberties and public health, comparing it to the debate over vaccinations in the U.S. On the one hand, people want and need to work, but at the same time, we see that social distancing and work from home measures are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. And while this seems like a particularly loud and divisive situation, one that the Trump administration is actively inciting, Dr. Zaretsky reminded us that the media is proliferating the opinions at the polar ends of the spectrum, which likely do not represent the views of most Americans. While lockdown protestors are demanding that the economy be reopened so that they can get haircuts and pedicures, it doesn’t seem like they’re considering that this requires other people to risk exposure to the virus so that they can perform these services. What is important to remember is how interconnected we all are. However, in the absence of no comprehensive national plan to end the pandemic, the rampant spread of misinformation, and the politicization of masks and other safety measures, we are left with division and hostility rather than a sense of unity toward a common goal of resolving this crisis. 

“In the context of this pandemic, there is no such thing as individual liberty…it is bringing into view how profoundly interconnected we all are.”

Dr. Blanton spoke of how this tension is playing out on the global stage and how different nations are regarding their human rights commitments during this time. In balancing the human rights with the public good, international law provides a set of standards that calls for restrictions to be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory in nature. Of course restrictions on the freedom from things like arbitrary imprisonment or torture should never be lifted under any circumstances. However, Dr. Blanton mentioned what he called “coronavirus coups” happening in places like Hungary, where democratically-elected presidents are using the pandemic to suspend elections and appointment themselves rulers for an indefinite period of time. Other governments have used the pandemic to undermine civil society by using emergency powers to detain journalists and activists and health care workers who criticize the government. In moving forward, Dr. Blanton stressed that the “protection of human rights should not be viewed as an impediment to handling the crisis so much as an essential component of an effective response.”

“Several countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine the rule of law or undermine democratic processes.” 

Community questions

We were pleased to have so much engagement from community members who sent in questions on Facebook for our panelists to address. Here are some of the questions and the responses: 

Would you say now is a good time for the U.S. to join the United Nations in guaranteeing health care and food as positive human rights? 

Dr. Blanton responded to this by saying that this crisis has brought into focus the mediocre job our country does in providing the positive rights, including health care. This has shown the weakness in our existing power structure in that the federal government is pushing to centralize power around the pandemic but at the same time is not able or is not willing to provide the goods and services that states need to combat the virus. He said the U.S. is unusual in its position on not identifying healthcare as a human right, though this is clearly something that needs to change.

Dr. Zaretsky also touched on how this crisis has exposed and exacerbated the pitfalls of the health care system, expressing a cautious optimism that this may serve as an impetus to reframe the healthcare debate in a way that makes forging comprehensive and long-term policy changes possible. Again, this is an example of how the extreme positions have been foregrounded and the wants and needs of the majority go unaccounted for. But there is no denying anymore that changes must be made going forward. 

What about labor rights? They are always tennis to non-existent in the U.S., but especially hard-hit right now as the U.S. and other countries like them slide further under the rug, risking worker safety while they’re at it as part of their coronavirus response. 

In addition to the weakness of our labor unions in the U.S., we fall behind other developed countries in terms of wage levels and working conditions. The crisis is bringing a lot of attention to that, but Dr. Blanton is not terribly optimistic that anything will come of it. The problem is that this requires hefty structural change, not just short-term attention. Dr. Zaretsky pointed out that there have been several labor uprisings during all this – at Amazon and Instacart for example – but these don’t get a whole lot of attention in the media. The focus is largely on militia groups storming the capitols, and the concerns of workers are getting lost in the shuffle. 

It’s easy to think of the two sides during this pandemic as people who resent not being able to shop or eat versus people who are afraid that they will die, but how do you draw the line between what different groups want and how do you decide which voices are listened to? How can a government make both sides feel that they’re being heard? Is there a way to defuse this resentment? 

A big part of this problem, according to Dr. Zaretsky, is that the Trump administration is ratcheting up this animosity by using divisive rhetoric rather than trying to rally people around a common cause. Trump is pitching this as a populist class struggle, and this narrative is dominating the media coverage. This is unfortunate because while there are differences in how Republicans and Democrats think this needs to be handled, the majority of Americans on both sides are in agreement about the need to take the virus seriously and are trying to do what they can to stop the spread. 

We are grateful to our panelists and to all the community members who joined us for the webinar. If you missed the event, you can check out the recording on our Facebook page. 

COVID-19 and Healthcare

two doctors demonstrate glucometer to patient.
How to make most of doctor’s appointment. Source: Army Medicine, Creative Commons.

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the lives of billions across the globe from a disruption of our daily lives to the loss of loved ones to the severe financial burden that has been placed on the world economy. One aspect of society that has been disproportionately affected is the healthcare system. Aside from the financial impact on healthcare systems the way we receive our general healthcare is changing rapidly with this new pandemic. While our primary concern internationally is getting control of this pandemic, non-infectious and chronic conditions are still prevalent and at an increased risk of being neglected.

With the increase in COVID-19 cases in every part of the country, people are being discouraged from coming to hospitals and doctors for non-emergent care. This means that primary healthcare visits either have to be postponed or done through telehealth, which is a remote visit. While telehealth is a great way to have normal checkups without having to go to a doctor’s office, many insurance plans don’t cover telehealth, which makes it harder to afford necessary visits safely.

Additionally, many people no longer have the financial stability they used to. With the downturn in the economy, not only are people who are working making less, but there are also some that have been laid off or furloughed and no longer have access to insurance through their employer. A quarter of those that remain insured have deductibles that are $2000 or higher, which they can no longer afford. This means that in addition to postponing primary care visits, more emergent and necessary visits are being put off.

Those with chronic conditions face more barriers than before to receiving health care. Those with underlying conditions are more likely to have a severe case if they contract COVID-19. However, they need continual care that must be done at least occasionally face-to-face. For example, people with cancer must continue to receive treatment, but many times that treatment makes them immunocompromised. Because of the increased risk, many hospitals no longer allow visitors in, which can decrease patient morale. Many patients also run the risk of having their treatment delayed due to coming in contact with someone that has tested positive for Covid-19. Many chronic conditions, like cancer, are time sensitive, so delays in treatment can be devastating.

Another group of people that have had their healthcare greatly impacted by COVID-19 is pregnant women. There are many check-ups that women are recommended to attend when expecting a baby to ensure the best health possible. However, with the pandemic, that has become harder. There is no evidence that pregnancy makes it more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. Additionally, there is no evidence that it can be transmitted to a fetus. It’s still important that pregnant women do everything they can to prevent coming in contact with COVID-19. To help in that effort, many OB/GYNs have reduced the number of visits pregnant women should attend in person, switching these visits to telehealth visits.

While a mother cannot pass COVID-19 to her unborn baby, the baby can contract it after birth from her or any other caregivers. To prevent spread to new babies, nurses, and doctors, many mothers are tested when they arrive at the hospital to give birth. Additionally, those that have scheduled C-sections are sometimes tested at home.

doctor performing a checkup on an infant
Dusti Tellez, a registered nurse at Naval Hospital (NH) Jacksonville’s maternal infant unit, holds a newborn baby for a checkup. Source: U.S. Navy, Creative Commons

According to UNICEF, around 116 million babies will be born during the COVID-19 pandemic. These babies along with the babies born shortly before the pandemic will be missing important doctor’s appointments. The appointments in the first two years of a child’s life play a large role in the child’s overall health for two reasons. First, children will typically receive vaccinations at these appointments, which will keep them from contracting deadly, but preventable diseases. The growing number of children who will not be receiving their vaccinations on time raises concerns about outbreaks of diseases that we’ve kept at bay while also still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, these visits are a good way to track the health of children early as screening for conditions, such as developmental delays, are frequent, and catching them early can give kids with these conditions a helpful jumpstart. Because of these two reasons, many experts advise parents to keep children’s visits up to date, but parents are still hesitant.

In addition to regular checkup visits, people are hesitant to go to the emergency room when they need to for non-COVID-19 related illnesses and emergencies. Hospital visits in the Baptist Hospital system in Memphis, TN were down 27 percent between March 15 and April 15 compared to the month before. Additionally, they noticed that the people that were coming in were more likely to have to be admitted instead of treated and sent home. This means sick people are staying at home longer for fear of COVID-19, and some are dying at home from treatable conditions.

Finally, there are areas of healthcare that are overlooked when we mention essential healthcare workers. My mother is a home health physical therapist, which means she goes to people’s homes to work with them. She mainly works with elderly people, and often visits nursing homes and assisted living facilities. According to her, these places have stricter requirements than before when it comes to letting people in: visitors have to have their temperature checked and have a symptom screening. Some facilities don’t even allow visitors anymore, even for wound care or physical therapy. While therapy might not seem essential, it is often used in this population to prevent accidents, like falls, that would send them to a hospital, where they would be even more at risk of contracting COVID-19.

While many of the changes to the healthcare system are temporary, like the decrease in general healthcare visits, some may become permanent. Telehealth has been shown to be beneficial for healthcare visits that don’t require tests and scans. In fact, many shy children have felt more comfortable with these visits. Additionally, the precautions taken by nursing homes and assisted living facilities when it comes to screening visitors make sense during flu season as the flu kills the over 65 population at a disproportionate rate. While the pandemic has changed some things for the worst, it has also helped us find where some changes need to be made to increase our safety in the future.

Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.

Where Social Distancing is Impossible

US-Mexico Border
Source: Yahoo Images

As the COVID-19 outbreak crosses borders throughout the United States, the Center for Disease Control has released recommendations for maintaining public health, which includes working from home, hand washing, and staying six feet away from any person, if possible. For the past few weeks, I have noticed people in my own community adapt to this new way of life. Kroger and Home Depot put masking tape six feet apart in the checkout lines, and every company I’ve ever heard of has sent me a helpful email explaining their own “pandemic plan.” Amidst the anxieties associated with this global pandemic, focus understandably turns to our immediate family and community. I may get frustrated about the lack of toilet paper in my local grocery store, but millions are incapable of following any of the CDC’s guidelines. Areas with a lack of hand-washing stations, affordable healthcare, clean water, internet, housing, and infrastructure do not allow for proper social distancing. Even at the United States’s southern border, relief agencies are struggling to address the growing pandemic.

Thousands of migrants along the United States-Mexico border are stuck in limbo. Many have fled from Central America, fleeing domestic violence, gangs, and death threats, to seek shelter in the United States. However, due to the threat of COVID-19, “The U.S. closed its border to asylum-seekers, Mexico suspended refugee processing, and many migrants are afraid to go home to their native countries, even if it were safe to travel.” Therefore, people seeking asylum are left on their own to find shelter, food, water, and medical care in a place that lacks these things when there is not a global pandemic occurring. Volunteers that would usually come to help have been quarantined, basic supplies have become hard to find due to panic buying, and any assistance from medical staff has been stretched thin as case numbers continue to rise in both Mexico and the United States. Additionally, asylum-seekers have to be concerned for their own safety even after they have made it to the border and received a court date for immigration hearings. Human trafficking, sexual assault, and gang violence are all risks in the camps, and since immigration hearings have been put on hold indefinitely, asylum-seekers have to wait even longer in these dangerous areas. Aid efforts become increasingly complex with more restrictions put in place by Mexican and United States governments each day.

Pew Research Center Graph showing countries that have closed their borders due to coronavirus
Source: Pew Research Center

As economies are negatively impacted by the virus, countries are becoming increasingly isolationist. 90% of the world’s population currently live in countries with restricted travel, while almost 40% live in countries with closed borders. These countries include Canada, China, Japan, and Ecuador, with Greece suspending asylum claims at its border with Turkey, much like the United States’s current policy with asylum-seekers at its southern border. Millions of United States citizens have filed for unemployment, and businesses and individuals are struggling to stay financially afloat and pay rent. It makes sense that countries like the United States are turning their attention to the plight of their own citizens, but according to the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “If we let the virus spread like wildfires, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, it would kill millions.” For many relief agencies and nonprofits, grants and funding for the year have already been distributed. However, the funds are typically earmarked for certain programs. Unfortunately, many of these programs, like funding for computer education, community engagement, and language classes, cease to exist in a world with COVID-19. Now, funding is needed to help displaced persons combat the threat of COVID-19, but it would require authorization to transfer funds from one program to another. Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has said that banks have not financially supported relief agencies who would help UN sanctioned countries like Iran and North Korea because they fear being sued by the US government. Bureaucratic lag in providing humanitarian resources will likely mean death for thousands, particularly those with limited resources. With donor countries being overwhelmed with their own coronavirus crises, where would the funding come from?

War-torn countries and refugee camps in countries like Syria and Sudan receive assistance from the UN in the form of educational, medical, and financial resources. When we see pictures of a child fleeing violence and war in Syria, it is understandable why the UN would come in to help. However, rhetoric around the US-Mexico border paints a different picture. Often, this population is thought of as simply a group of people seeking the “American dream”. In truth, these asylum-seekers and refugees are fleeing for their lives, just like refugees on other continents. Regardless of opinions surrounding citizenship and legal status, the reality is that thousands of people have come to this region to escape deadly violence. Executive Director of Global Response Management (GRM), an organization that provides medical care to vulnerable populations worldwide, Helen Perry explains the unique situation, “There’s not a lot of great oversight. Normally in a displacement situation, the UN would come in at either the request of the country they’re fleeing from or the country that’s receiving them…but unfortunately at the border that’s not happening because both governments [Mexico and the US] are sort of unwilling to admit that there’s a problem.” As a former nurse in the US Army, Perry is especially adept at assessing the needs of struggling communities. When she came to the US-Mexico border for the first time in 2018, she was surprised to see people facing similar levels of violence to patients she had helped in Yemen who had fled the Civil War there. Fortunately, her organization continues to provide aid along the border, but COVID-19 adds an additional layer of complications. The dire situation described above was her take last year, and her organization has had to make adjustments due to the pandemic, including creating a makeshift hospital. They’re not the only organization building makeshift shelters. A government agency tasked with building the US-Mexico border wall is currently creating semi-permanent lodging for its construction workers so they can continue building, despite concerns at COVID-19. These workers, like asylum-seekers on the other side of the wall, are worried about their health and how a lack of resources could impact them and their families.

Asylum-seekers and refugees have limited access to news updates, so there is a lack of knowledge in the camps about COVID-19 and its impact. Border towns like Tijuana are already overwhelmed with patients who are US citizens, so it would be virtually impossible for a non-citizen to get accepted should the need arise. They have been instructed by relief agencies to attempt to follow the previously mentioned CDC guidelines about social distancing and handwashing, but this is incredibly difficult in the camps. Tents are small, and many people have to sleep next to each other. Water stations and bathrooms are few and far between. As coronavirus tests are barely accessible to US citizens, finding one would be challenging for someone in the camps.

Discussions of this contagious virus have created anxiety for any empathetic person. Despite the grim reality, there are some positive efforts taking place. GRM is currently working on a twenty-bed field hospital near the Matamoros camps, although they may face more challenges as United States volunteers may not be allowed to travel there. Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization, and the Refugee Health Alliance have distributed medication and additional hand washing stations to many asylum-seekers. While there are few suspected cases of COVID-19 at the camps as of yet, these actions could be crucial in containing the virus should an outbreak occur. It’s important to remember wise words by Richard Blewitt, UN representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “At this time we need global and local solidarity and compassion with all those affected by COVID-19, wherever they live.”

Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

Image of concrete walls allowing some sunshine with a small window near the top.
jmiller291. Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7. Creative Commons for Flickr.

In the United States, the earliest experiments with solitary confinement began over two centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. Champions of the idea of natural rights, thinkers of the era found that public corporate punishment was incompatible with the development of a free citizen. Instead, silence and solitude would allow prisoners to reflect and that would induce repentance that would drive prisoners to live a more responsible life, making individuals the instrument of their own punishment. However, as the United States’ first silent prisons and penitentiaries were publicized, renowned nineteenth-century thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited these institutions to observe these revolutionary systems. Once intrigued, these icons now condemned these silent prisons as de Tocqueville remarked,

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, itkills.

As other physicians and experts echoed their concerns, reporting the high risk and evidence of insanity and death of inmates existing in solitude, it gained the attention of the United States Supreme Court which influenced a new philosophy in correctional administration and gradually reduced the regularity of the practice.

This period of relief lasted until prisons began using solitary confinement to segregate more “threatening” and “dangerous” prisoners who were considered a risk to the safety of other prisoners and staff. Then, retribution and deterrence replaced rehabilitation as the professional purpose of corrections. As the U.S. responded by institutionalizing longer sentences, building more prisons, and abolishing parole, the use of solitary confinement rapidly increased with prison growth.

Today, the United States not only incarcerates more people than any other nation, but we also expose more of these people to solitary confinement than any other nation. The United States holds around 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement typically as punishment, as a tactic to control overcrowded institutions, and as safety from or for the general population.

As individuals, inmates tell us what it is like in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, your world is a gray concrete box. You may spend around 23 hours a day alone in your cell which are only furnished with a toilet, sink, and bed. When prisoners are escorted out of their cells, they are first placed in restraints through the cuff port and sometimes with additional leg or waist chains and tethered by the hooks on their cuffs to an officer. Prisoners are controlled by bodily restraints, with pervasive and unforgiving round the clock surveillance, and the restricting hallways and cells they exist in. They are lead to solitary exercise each day and a brief shower three times a week then back to their cells. Confined to their own concrete cells, prisoners are both physically and psychologically removed from anyone else. Prisoners depend on officers to bring them anything they may need and are allowed to have such as toilet paper, books, or letters they may receive. Many prisoners relate with dark thoughts that haunt them in isolation. Many become angry and hateful behind compliance.

Where many express anger, they all express a struggle to maintain dignity and a sense of self or humanity. Being alone, prisoners forget how to interact with others. Feeling as though they have nothing to live for in isolation, prisoners may give up on these things. Many interviews describe watching others who were locked in indefinite solitary choosing between giving up by either through suicide or turning into an unfeeling and uncaring creature. Correctional facilities’ workers express their concerns as to why and how they become desensitized through strict policy, regulation, and the specialized emotional stance necessary to interact with these prisoners. Acting as servants for the lives of some bad apples, observing civilized men be reduced to the natural man, and acting in adherence to authority with little voice heard by superiors, this work requires a specialized emotional stance.

Instead of regular and healthy social relationships important to human survival, these prisoners are embedded in a structure that extends itself into them. It enters their mind and sometimes switches off the human inside or sometimes forces it to become violent enough to compete. In this way, it also robs them of self-determination, liberty, and other forms of autonomy.

Image of protesters of solitary confinement holding signs connecting solitary confinement to torture and mental illness.
Felton Davis. 16-11-23 02 Union Square Vigil. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Because the practice of solitary confinement is a global one and brings claims of widespread abuse, the UN special rapporteur presented his report, or evaluation, of solitary confinement. This rapporteur defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days because studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may become irreversible after this point as the rapporteur concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

International and domestic laws prohibit all forms of Racial Discrimination, which address variations in solitary confinement’s demographics, and rights of persons with disabilities which protect individuals with mental, or other, illnesses. They also guarantee the rights of women and children or juveniles, which are especially vulnerable under conditions of solitary confinement or isolation. Both sides address the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. More specifically, they address conditions of solitary confinement which always may apply to every individual.

Domestically, the Eighth Amendment reveals how the United States Constitution addresses Solitary Confinement. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel or unusual punishment” on someone convicted of a crime. This allows these prisoners to challenge their conditions while in custody and the actions of prison officials. To do this, prisoners must first show that the challenged condition is “sufficiently serious” and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the condition. Close observation of court decisions reveals that there is no organized methodology to determine what makes a condition “sufficiently serious”. This decision is made in each case by the personal standards of judges. The judge may question why the prisoner was placed there; however, the Supreme Court has not made a ruling whether intent should play a part in this evaluation. Courts disagree whether it should matter why the individual was placed in solitary confinement. Also, the Amendment did not answer when a prison condition is punishment or not. The debate remains whether the effect of the conditions on the prisoner or the intent of officials makes them punishment. In court, Eighth Amendment analysis hinges on the motivations of state actors and prison officials it is supposed to act as a check against. The conditions of the Eighth Amendment fail to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment through the scope of prison officials’ intent and judges’ objective analysis.

The ICCPR is international law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It later states that people deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a person and the treatment approach for prisoners should be aimed at efficiently improving their reformation and social rehabilitation.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Mandela Rules that prohibited restrictions and disciplinary sanctions that could amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, such as Indefinite Solitary Confinement, Prolonged solitary confinement, or to place a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell. It defined solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact and prolonged solitary confinement for any time period over fifteen days. It states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last case resort for the shortest time possible and given due process to each case. Finally, it paid special attention to protect prisoners with disabilities which may be magnified, and especially vulnerable women and children from solitary confinement.

Through these treaties and agreements, States do not only assume obligations internationally but to their own people as well. Just like our own constitution, these international laws were agreed to and are legally binding to regulate the conduct of states with their citizens. However, without international forces to enforce and regulate these agreements, states may ignore or lose sight of their importance.

Despite these resolutions, Domestic laws are vague so that it is doubtful they meet minimum requirements regarding the ones set by human rights instruments. This creates debate and little guarantees in the legal system. They also undermine fundamental guarantees of due process, are applied randomly, and do not protect the prisoners’ rights.

Today tens of thousands of humans remain alone in concrete boxes in the United States. This report concludes that their conditions are emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. They are destructive because it robs us of many things that makes life human and bearable like stimulus through social interaction and interaction with the natural world. Under total control and out of the public eye, people may be subjected to incredible human rights violations. By allowing our government to ignore these people, we are accepting this indifference towards others under its care. By ignoring their human rights, in this way, we diminish our own.

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.

Under the Surface: Navigating Through the Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié

On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.

The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

Duval-Carrié speaking about his project.
Duval-Carrié speaking about his project. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.

The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.

Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.

Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience.
Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his  webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.