“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
What is Juneteenth?
Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the U.S. government made little effort to enforce the executive order, allowing Texas and other Southern states to uphold the institution of slavery for two and a half years after it was declared illegal. It was not until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War reached the enslaved people there. Alternatively called “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” and “Cel-Liberation Day,” African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s.
In the decades following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth celebrations grew in size and popularity. Some formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate the holiday. Early celebrations often included a ritual in which revelers tossed ragged garments that enslaved people would have been forced to wear into the river and adorned themselves in fancy clothes taken from their former plantations. In 1872, a group of African-Americans ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park as a place to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The festivities typically involved fishing, barbecue, rodeos, baseball, and prayer services.
In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined, as White employers did not recognize the holiday and would not let Black people off work if the holiday fell during the work week. Educational text books for students marked the official end of slavery as January 1, 1863, without mentioning its continuance through the end of the war. American Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, and Juneteenth went largely under the radar. Celebrations were revived in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and cities across the country reinstated the festivities. Through the tireless efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Other states are following his lead. In fact, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either made Juneteenth a state holiday or an official day of observance; however, it is not yet a national holiday. This year, several corporations, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have announced that June 19 will be a paid holiday for their employees.
The Struggle Continues
As we celebrate the official end of institutionalized slavery, it is important to remember that the struggle for true freedom and equality for African-Americans is far from over. As the country is waking up to the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Juneteenth celebrations are expected to be particularly festive and well-attended this year. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other victims of anti-Black violence, there is a renewed sense of urgency and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement. Massive protests are happening all over the country with hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. In order to truly understand and participate in Juneteenth celebrations, it is important to remember the horrors of slavery, the extreme violence inflicted on Black people in the years following liberation, and how these legacies continue to plague our society. In anticipation of Juneteenth, the Equal Justice Initiative has released a new report – Reconstruction in America – describing the various ways in which White people and the State invented new forms of slavery, perpetuated anti-Black sentiment and justified violence and oppression. As Bryan Stevenson aptly reminds us, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.” Today, Black Americans still do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as White people, as they continue to experience lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, and unequal justice disproportionately to their White counterparts.
While Juneteenth in years past has focused on celebrating the advances that Black people have made in the United States, this year is expected to center around a call to action. For White people who want to show their support, this includes showing up for the causes of anti-racism and equal justice, understanding the structural and institutional underpinnings of white supremacy and white superiority, exploring their own complicity in upholding a racist social order, and using their privilege and agency to take actionable steps to dismantle racism, both in their personal lives and on an policy level.
History is calling the future from the streets of protest.
What choice will we make?
What world will we create?
What will we be?
There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist”
by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D.
Program Director MA Program Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights
On March 9, 2020, the IHR published my blog entitled ‘A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us.’ On that date, there were 717 reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US and 26 reported deaths. Today, about 3 months later, on June 6, 2020, while I am finishing writing this new blog, there are 1.94 million reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US, with 111 thousand reported deaths. These numbers take one’s breath away; they invite retreating into a state of silence – to a state of being ‘comfortably numb’ (3), and to leave it all to others, whomever they might be, to deal with this shocking reality. But I cannot afford to become a passive bystander to this, no-one can. Not when so many scientists and practitioners are speaking up and calling for action on the urgent human rights aspects of the pandemic, not when so many health-care workers are putting their own health and well-being on the line for the care and comfort of COVID-19 patients, and not when so many of those most affected by and at risk for COVID-19 are out in the streets protesting against the human rights violations of police brutality and murder, and for the equal justice to which they have an inherent right and that is so long overdue.
On March 6, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, M.D, urged policy makers and governments “to take great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically” while devising and implementing measures to curtail the virus outbreak. She also wrote that “human dignity and rights need to be front and center in that effort, not an afterthought,” and added that “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus.”
Here in the US, the “COVID-19 test of our society” that Bachelet referred to, once again highlights the glaring inequalities and deep-rooted racism that continues to severely harm and disadvantage people of color, in particular African-Americans, and that in all its ugliness diminishes life for us all. In a statement released on June 3, 2020, Bachelet commented that “structural racism and police violence are of course found across the world,” and that “the anger we have seen in the US, erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing.” She added “in addition, there must be a profound examination of a wide range of issues, including socio-economic factors and deep-seated discrimination. To move forward, communities must be able to participate in shaping decisions that affect them and be able to air their grievances.”
What role does science have to play in bringing about solutions for what plagues our society? What can scientists do to make things better? Taking my cues from conservation science and from my own work in the behavioral science of peace I propose two things: (a) taking our science to the streets-metaphorically, and (b) taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to the crises that we face. My inspiration for the former comes from an article that was released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which documents the mass extinction and biodiversity loss caused by human activity and how it threatens our mere survival. It is one of the most urgent calls for “humanizing conservation” that I have come across in the last 10+ plus years.
I’ll let the authors, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven, speak for themselves:
“In view of the current extinction crisis and the lack of widespread actions to halt it, it is very important that scientists should metaphorically take to the streets (my italics). We have, for example, started a new global initiative we called “Stop Extinctions,” to address and publicize the extent of the extinction crisis and its impacts on the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being, aspects still rather ignored by most people. There is time, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There is no doubt, for example, that there will be more pandemics if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for human consumption as food and traditional medicines. It is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization. What is at stake is the fate of humanity and most living species. Future generations deserve better from us.”
The major crises of the present time, the corona-virus pandemic, systemic racism, and the ecocide of climate change, mass extinctions and biodiversity loss are not disjointed separate crises, but, rather, interlinked existential crises that are impacting the entire world population. Attempts to solve one of them without considering the others are folly and doomed to failure. Attempts to solve one of them in one part of the world without considering the rest of the world are equally foolish and doomed to failure. What this implies for policy is that “we the people” need political leadership and governance informed by the science that shows how and why these crises are interlinked and why they constitute existential crises.
This also implies that across natural and social disciplines scientists need to develop and publicly share comprehensive solutions in ways that both clearly inform and can drive policy. I think that the times of coasting through a scientific career from tenure track to tenure on strictly basic research with no immediate applied value for society are over. Every science career should involve interlinked basic and applied work, and tenure and promotion reviews as well as grant reviews should be updated so as to properly assess achievements in each of these interlinked domains. The crises facing us are too formidable not to enlist all available good minds in both properly delineating the relevant component parts of the crises that we face as well as developing solutions to them.
While I have confidence in science in the part it can and must play in dealing with the crises that we face, my confidence in politics and governance here in the US in its present form is at an all-time low. In my opinion, the kind of informed and enlightened leadership that draws on science to map out the immense problems that we face to find the appropriate solutions, is, with few notable exceptions, missing in action here in the US, whether we look for it to the left or right of the political spectrum or right down the center aisle. As a consequence, the global leadership that is needed to guide international partnership efforts to combat global crises, leadership for which the US as the main democratic superpower is uniquely qualified, is equally lacking at present. Global partnerships developed and spearheaded by the US and built on mutual trust and respect that accomplished so much good for so many in the past, from defeating fascism and bringing down the iron curtain to establishing a universal human rights framework and systems to deal with global health responses, are, to put it bluntly, pretty much in shambles right now. Looking in solely on the status quo of the political side of things here in the US and their global effects, the future for humankind appears to look grim, indeed.
In his Gettysburg Address President Lincoln, exhorted Americans to resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. I think that President Lincoln’s call to preserve the essence of what and who we are as a nation has rarely been more urgent than now. I also think that the thousands of lawful nonviolent protesters that are out in the streets right now, are heeding President Lincoln’s call for action magnificently, showing America’s inherent greatness in doing so. I am deeply moved when I see the people most affected by the corona-virus pandemic and most at risk, risking their well-being by taking their rightful call for justice and equity, so long overdue, to the streets. I say to you, your lives matter tremendously, to all of us, and to the future of this country! And I say to you, take it beyond the streets! Run for office and practice to become the informed and enlightened leaders and policy makers that we so desperately need right now! I have my vote and science at the ready to share with you!
And to return to the call by the eminent conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues, yes, we must take our scientific knowledge “to the street,” as scientific knowledge is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We must step down from our ivory towers and speak up publicly and clearly about what the facts tell us and what we see as solutions to the crises that we face. Yes, we need those peer reviewed publications to keep our work valid and meaningful, but we should work with our institutions and granting agencies to provide free access to these journal articles to all. The existence of large for-profit publishing houses dominating the journal article universe becomes untenable in the face of the role that science has to play in combating the existential crises that threaten us all.
We must overcome any distrust and tribalism that hampers collaboration between natural and social science. We need good minds in both major areas of science to work together on the interrelated crises of the corona-virus pandemic and ecocide. For those of us working in the behavioral science of peace we must call a spade a spade when it comes to human rights violations right here at home. Attacks on human dignity, whichever form they may take, and irrespective of where they take place, or who commits them, from teargassing lawful and peaceful demonstrators during a respiratory disease pandemic to publicly insulting and disparaging individuals and groups holding a different opinion than one’s own, are attacks on human dignity and thus constitute human rights violations and should be properly labelled as such (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see Articles 1,3,5,12,19,20).
News reports show that many of the protesters who have taken their grievances to the streets of America following the murder of George Floyd are young. As US scientists let’s take to the streets – at least metaphorically – to offer our support and to help make a difference toward a just society and a sustainable future for all – in sum, toward a sustainable peace. As Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues propose, “future generations deserve better from us.”
(1) Verbeek, P. (2018). Natural peace. In P. Verbeek & B.A. Peters (Eds.), Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers
Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.
Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.
A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.
Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities
Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.
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.”
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.
As we watch the news and as I write these lines, the novel corona virus epidemic that started in China, has affected more people than the severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Globally on the 30th January 2020 the World Health Organization of the United Nations declared the epidemic a public health emergency of international concern. This defines the outbreak as an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response. Countries and airlines suspended travel from affected areas, which is all the countries to be specific and initiated a comprehensive screening at airports.
Wherever we are in the world, we are all living the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is a public health challenge for the entire global population. Many countries shut down to prevent the spread of the virus. And it came to that day that students never returned to class, employees are working remotely if they can, cinemas are shut, and shops are closed. Basically everything stopped, maybe it’s because the world may have been caught off guard by the size and ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis.
Me being in a unique family, I will share what we are doing to keep safe from the virus and at the same time busy. First we take all the precautions that we are supposed to. We regularly and thoroughly clean our hands with an alcohol based hand sanitizer or just wash them with clean water and soap. All the surfaces including the floor we clean using soap and jick to kill the germs and any bacteria that may be there. We also try our best to practice respiratory hygiene where we cover our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze. Us being divided in groups that we call families, we tend to help and guide the young ones.
In the centre we are girls of different ages which makes three different groups. The least ages is ten and below. They do coloring and drawing almost daily, and my opinion is, they enjoy which makes them happy. The middle group of ages eleven to fourteen. They usually have their sessions on Thursdays where they are taught about different things for example, last Thursday they were taught about being in a good company, how to stay out of bad company, and how to be a good example. The other group is of ages fifteen and above, and am in that group. We usually have our meetings every Saturday. In this group we are not taught we learn from each other. We are still young to learn about marriage, but yes that was our last topic. Thanks to our mom who acts as our facilitator who we ask very may questions and on top of she teaches us how to bake every Saturday.
Due to the deadly virus, all countries are under lock-down meaning we are all stuck in quarantine. Home is where everyone should feel safe. Being at home means, above all else, being in a place that is dear to you. It should mean protection. But for many children, adolescents, and women, home is a place of violence and abuse. Girls and young women kept at home are safer from the disease but face increased inter-family tensions and an overload of domestic work. Girls, especially those from marginalized communities and disabilities, may be particularly affected and also cutting them off from essential protection services and social networks.
Economic stress on families due to the outbreak can put children, and in particular girls, at greater risk. Girls who are often considered to be adults in the society, experience from very early age the negative social norms that demand they do what women do when they are considered matured for example, cleaning, cooking and child care. Apart from child labor, there is also sexual abuse that is going on. A lot of rape cases before this pandemic the victims were raped by people who they know and also people who are very close to them. Now, we are all stuck with our families whether good or abusive ones. I am really worried of the girls, boys and women who are stuck with their abusive relatives. Even if there are helplines one can’t ask for help because the abuser may overhear the conversation and he may decide to do worse so that the victim may never open up.
Talking of girls, there are girls who are at a greatly exposed to the societal cultural beliefs and practices. In the urban areas, everything seems to have stopped or controlled right now but in the rural areas everything is normal. No lock-downs or restrictions and even no curfews. Meaning that there are so many girls who are undergoing Female Genital Cut, who are helplessly waiting to undergo the cut. Some parents are giving out their daughters hands for marriage. The parents feel that they are free to do anything with their daughters. When schools were on the girls told the teachers what was going on and that prevented many cases of retrogressive cultural practices. Now there is no school where girls would go to their rescue. Am certain these girls feel abandoned.
Activists, social workers, and with the government should be concerned at the potential rise on domestic and cultural violence during this epidemic. While quarantine measures are necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, they should be implemented in a way that guarantees protection for children and women. Measures should be in place so teachers can stay in contact with their pupils. Risk factors should be identified and taken care off. should be visits to the communities, homes, and houses particularly where it is suspected that there might be a girl, child, or a woman in danger.
Let us not just worry about our families and friends. Let us also think of those other people that we don’t know who are vulnerable not only to violence and retrogressive cultural practices but also those who sleep hungry because they luck something to eat. As we remember them in our daily prayers lets wash our hands and take all the precautions that we need to be safe.
COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.
The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.
Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.
However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.
Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:
Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.
From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.
Some Potential Success?
Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.
“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park
Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.
Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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