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. 

 

Challenges with Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.

Picture Message
Source: Yahoo Image

Humans have always been regarded as higher animals due to several similarities we share, including instinct, cognition, problem solving skills, introspection, creativity, emotional intelligence and planning skills. Just as planning is an ability of both humans and animals, it involves adequate effort and encompasses a wide range of ideas and research put in place to actualize our desired objective. One of the most fascinating parts of planning to me includes identifying the best place or location we can truly reach our goals, achieve our objectives and fulfil our purpose, which all basically centers around migration. Migration remains a constant and unending phenomenon for both humans and animals, and various motives can be attributed to this endeavor, such as the search for food and water, seasonal weather change, mating reasons, employment opportunities, health and education reasons, adventures and thrills, insecurity, and many others. More still, we can basically summarize migration purposes as a search for a better life, which is a basic instinct all living things possess.

In the last ten years, migration within the international context has risen to a significant level despite continuous efforts many countries have dedicated in ensuring their borders are adequately tightened with hope of discouraging immigrants from illegally entering their borders. According to Ross, Cunningham, & Hanna, an estimation of 244 million migrants are presently living temporarily or permanently outside their country of birth.  Violent conflict, discrimination and lack of employment opportunities are major reasons for the increasing number of immigrants in several developed countries, and has forced many countries into adopting drastic measures such as rigorous identity checks, detention camps and deportation, to reduce their entry. Another means of curbing the increasing number of immigrants includes formulating and enforcing policies that limits them access to affordable healthcare services. For instance, the United States Affordable Care Act excludes undocumented immigrants from accessing health insurance, while the immigrant provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) excludes undocumented immigrants from publicly funded services.

Several immigration laws and policies within the United States continuously hinder undocumented immigrants’ access to adequate healthcare services, which constitutes a major challenge to all who fall under this category despite evidence proving they contribute more money in taxes to the U.S. economy than they consume in services.  What I believe the U.S. government has failed to understand is the fact that these laws and policies not only put the health of these undocumented immigrants at a high risk, but also the health of the general public and socioeconomic development of the country. One of the most detrimental ways these laws and policies have greatly affected this vulnerable population is in the fight against the HIV epidemic. According to Ross et al., migrants who reside in developed countries are disproportionately affected by HIV as the proportion of new HIV diagnosis amongst migrants exceeds the percentage of the general population. HIV, as we all know, is a global epidemic that demands the best care and treatment which was the reason that spurred world leaders in 2015 to restate their commitment to the right to health by enacting the universal health coverage in the sustainable development goals that guarantees all people and communities access to high quality health services.

HIV +-
Source: Yahoo Image

It is clear the United States government clearly disregards this universal policy that aims at ensuring everyone receives the best healthcare services irrespective of their personality or condition. I guess the U.S. government by their own understanding believes migrants do not fall under the universal coverage as it is evident through their discouraging treatment of undocumented immigrants, more so, those living with HIV. Ross et al. believes migrants persons living with HIV have more characteristics that are associated with poor HIV clinical outcome, and are more likely to die from HIV compared to non-immigrants. For undocumented people living with HIV, there are more factors that exacerbate their condition such as discriminatory laws and policies, lack of follow-up care, ignorance, stigmatization and discrimination. I do believe these discriminating laws and policies serves as the major factor affecting undocumented people living with HIV. One area that typifies this can be seen during the documentation process of a patient health record, which compulsorily demands the immigration status information of individuals. This got me wondering if a client’s immigration status information is actually needed in their health record.

Kim, Molina & Saadi believes documenting immigration status in patient records not only possess a challenge to the clients but also to clinicians. Although by recording this, the information would most likely improve the communication process between the client and the clinician, and also facilitate continuity of care, on the other hand, recording the same information could expose the client alongside their family to risks of being stigmatized or discriminated by non-immigrant friendly clinicians who may expose them to immigration enforcement officers even though it violates patient confidentiality. They believe explicit documentation of immigration status of patients alongside their families in a health record be avoided as evidence suggest risks outweigh benefits in this regard. Conversation about immigration status using indirect language in describing social context should rather be prioritized over written documentation to ensure patients have their healthcare needs met without fear. They concluded by advising clinicians and the general healthcare system to ensure policies and guidelines reduce the high level of stigma and discrimination for all rather than the present opposite.

Families fighting against forced separation
Madison, WI, USA- February 18, 2016 – group of people protesting new Wisconsin immigration laws. Source: Yahoo Image.

Another area that strikes me hard for undocumented immigrants living with HIV are those who are currently in detention camps across various states in the U.S., a revelation which came to me through one of my on-campus events with the representative of the Alabama Latino Aids Coalition. The speaker spoke about the inhumane treatment undocumented immigrants go through while in detention, more so, people living with HIV. This made me do some research and I found several evidences that confirmed undocumented immigrants living with HIV can actually maintain continuous access to care and treatment while being detained in correctional facilities to ensure they sustain or achieve good virologic outcomes and well-tolerated regimens if structured protocols are implemented and enforced. It should be noted that the detention process for migrants during their deportation proceedings is complex and rigid which has led to several lapses due to poor access to proper medical care. Even though there are 21 Federal Detention Centers across the U.S., which are operated by the Bureau of Prisons, and all provide Antiretroviral treatment and medication to detainees who disclose their HIV status, there exists fear of stigmatization or discrimination amongst detainees living with HIV as they believe their disclosure may negatively impact their immigration trial, especially if they also fall under any gender or sexual minority groups. Also, the poor living condition and environment of this population while in detention forces some to relapse into substance use, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and disregard their treatment plan.

Based on this understanding, it is hard to imagine the inhumane condition undocumented immigrants are forced to live through while being detained. There is need for the U.S. government to understand that even though several undocumented immigrants after their trial, are usually deported or released at the nearest borders or territories close to their home countries, several others return into the society without receiving adequate rehabilitation or reintegrative education which possess a challenge to the society at large. Human and material resources that could have been used to resolve other pressing needs will then be used to serve their avoidable demands. To resolve this challenge, there is the need to abolish any form of discrimination against detainees living with HIV and ensure it does not affect their deportation trial. Also, clinicians and correctional officers need to be more sensitive to the needs of the detainees having been separated from their families and may never see them again, which is a situation that can easily exacerbate their condition in such a hostile detention environment. Human rights institutions, immigration right advocates, academicians, alongside health authorities, media and the general public should also advocate and help raise awareness about the poor condition of these detention facilities. For deported detainees living with HIV, the U.S. government alongside non-governmental institutions should provide adequate health education using evidence-based treatment medications and materials that meets the specification of their home country to ensure transnational HIV continuity of care.

Picture of Undocumented Immigrants
Undocumented Immigrants in dire need of help. Source: Yahoo Image

In all, we all should understand that undocumented immigrants are also humans and should be treated with utmost respect irrespective of their situation. There is need to ensure their health and wellbeing are adequately met and well taken care of. As humans, we should not only sympathize with them, but also support them by raising awareness and advocating for better laws and policies that can assist them during their ordeal. We should always aim for a multi-sectoral approach that addresses the structural challenges for undocumented immigrants living with HIV such as housing, food security, mental health, and access to employment because there is a continuous effort by the U.S. government to dehumanize undocumented immigrants as community members and remove vital resources that is available to them. As we all know the U.S. government remains extremely resolute in enforcing the 2015 immigration laws that places all undocumented immigrants at risk of being deported, they can also ensure the universal law on respect to all life is adequately respected by enforcing laws, guidelines and policies that protects the lives and wellbeing of undocumented immigrants.

A Human Rights Perspective on Solutions to the Opioid Crisis in America

My most recent article described an overview of the opioid addiction crisis from a human rights perspective. You can view it here. In this article, I attempt to explain the different solutions from medical professionals regarding opioid addiction and the racial and economic disparities that have arisen amongst the most successful solution.

There are two forms of treatment that most clinics can decide between: traditional counseling therapy with a focus on mental strength or using medication, such as buprenorphine and methadone, to combat addiction. Research has proven that without medication, people are twice as likely to die from an overdose. However, the traditional counseling methods have persisted across treatment centers. The Journal of Substance Abuse conducted a study that showed that between 2003 and 2010, of 50,000 opioid addiction patients on Medicaid, patients who had received counseling therapies were six times more likely to relapse than those who received methadone as treatment and four times more likely than those who received buprenorphine. The risk of overdoses is increased during the period of detoxification utilized by abstinence based programs because of a lack of tolerance.

A counseling session
Counseling. Source: Alan Cleaver. Creative Commons.

Opioid substitution has proven to reduce mortality. To avoid a misuse of buprenorphine and methadone, the two medications are tightly controlled by doctors. Buprenorphine is a drug that reduces the craving for opioids and reduces the chances of a fatal overdose overall. Suboxone, a compound of buprenorphine, is engineered to reduce the possibility of an overdose. However, using medication as treatment for addiction has only truly been utilized at a small number of walk-in clinics and has not been fully incorporated into the nation-wide health care system. In 2015, in the United States, 8-10% of treatment programs offered buprenorphine and methadone as substitution therapy. Even in this small number of programs, the method was often unsuccessful as the medicine was offered for too short of a period to be effective. The treatment is only provided in very regulated clinics and prescribers are limited to a maximum of 275 patients.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of doctor visits where the health professional prescribed buprenorphine greatly rose. Despite this, a research report found that of 13.4 million medical cases involving buprenorphine, there was no increase in prescriptions written for minority groups. Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, one of the authors of the study, reported that white populations are nearly 35 times more likely to have buprenorphine discussed in their visit than black populations. Accessibility and insurance ability are commonly cited as reasons why this disparity has occurred, especially as the majority of white patients paid for their treatment using cash or insurance whereas only 25% of visits were covered by Medicare or Medicaid. This is especially concerning when it is taken into consideration that the rise in the use of buprenorphine occurred at the same time that opioid overdose related deaths were rising significantly faster for black populations than for whites.

Representation of the cost of healthcare.
The cost of healthcare. Source: ImagesMoney. Creative Commons.

In many cities, opioid addiction treatment is segregated by income. Lower income patients find themselves needing to attend a clinic in order to receive treatment while more affluent patients are able to avoid the clinic and instead receive treatment from a doctor’s office where medicines can be prescribed. These clinic programs are federally funded and often covered by Medicaid. However, in order to receive treatment from the highly regulated clinics, patients must visit daily. Many patients commute for hours every day before waiting within the clinic to receive their life-saving medication. These patients, who are already part of a lower income bracket, are losing precious hours where they could be working or with their families. Work, childcare, families, and other related life events must revolve around the daily trip to the clinic. Some patients have described needing to turn down job offers. Because of this, methadone has earned the nickname, “liquid handcuffs.”

In order to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians are required to undergo a special form of training. Only 5% of physicians have participated in this training. The shortage of clinicians has resulted in the ability of physicians to demand cash payments in return for a prescription of buprenorphine. 40% of white patients paid cash while 35% relied on private insurance. Just 25% of these visits were covered and paid for by Medicaid and Medicare. These percentages highlight just how costly a lifesaving prescription can be for people of low income. Because of the racial disparities within the United States economy, the people who fall into this category tend to be of a minority group. Gentrification has also caused a problem within the clinic community as their buildings get bought out in favor of other businesses. In 2016 in New York City, 53% of participants in methadone programs were Latino and 23% were black, while 21% were white. Also, in 2016 more than 13,600 people in New York filled at least one prescription for Suboxone with nearly 80% of these 13,600 paid for the medication using private insurance.

2011 Protest against the War on Drugs
No More Drug War. Source: Neon Tommy. Creative Commons.

Buprenorphine was purposely introduced into a private market, intended only for those who could pay a high price. Therefore, the unequal distribution of the drug can be determined to be not accidental. Due to the government regulations surrounding the prescription of the drug and the training required for doctors, there are too few doctors actually allowed to prescribe the medication. Those who can often do not accept insurance for their services as demand is so high and they can make more of a profit. Insurance will pay for the actual drug, but patients must pay for the doctor out of pocket.

A permanent stigma surrounding methadone has developed, hailing from the War on Drugs days in the 1960s. Racially charged stereotypes regarding addiction have fueled this stigma which has in turn caused lawmakers to be reluctant in passing legislation that would make the drug more accessible to underprivileged populations. However, this would be the push the community desperately needs. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone need to be significantly more accessible, both for patients and doctors alike. They need to be included in more clinics while therapy based solely on mental counseling should be phased out from the common addiction treatment centers. In order to close the racial and economic disparities within this crisis, it is important to first recognize them. Once that has been done, our communities need to take direct action that will result in a positive change.

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

Juneteenth 2020: Celebrating the Past, Fighting for a Better Future

Juneteenth in yellow, black, red and green with black power fist
Source: Yahoo Images

“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.

History

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.

Protest sign reads "End White Silence. Black Lives Matter"
Source: Creative Commons

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”

– Ibram X. Kendi

To learn how to build an anti-racist world, watch Ibram X. Kendi’s inspiring TED talk.

Juneteenth in Birmingham

Juneteenth festivities will be held in Kelly Ingram Park on Friday, June 19, starting at noon. Make sure to drive down First Avenue South to see the freshly painted Black Lives Matter street writing commissioned by the city.

Taking It To The Streets

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

Large crowd of individuals with masks on march in the streets holding signs that say Black Lives Matter
Source: Yahoo Images

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.

Person holds up sign that reads "Science is Real"
Photo: Liz Lemon; Source: Flickr

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).

Three pairs of hands painted blue and green to represent the earth
Source: Yahoo Images

As peace scientists, we must also speak up about the solid evidence that our biological inheritance includes a capacity for peace through our ability for empathy and for taking the perspective of others, and through our natural preference for reciprocity and justice (1). We can point anyone who has any doubts about the content validity of our comparative findings to the international news feed showing peaceful demonstrations from Asia to Europe to Africa and the Middle East in solidarity with the protests against police brutality and murder and systemic racism that are going on throughout much of the US. Politicians of all stripes should be made aware of the fact that people in vastly different cultures across the globe all demonstrate a shared disposition to not take kindly to injustice. And we can point anyone who expresses doubts in how science and government can effectively work together to deal with crises as monumental as the corona virus pandemic to New Zealand, where the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the country has officially eradicated COVID-19 and will return to normal after the last-known infected person recovered.

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

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. 

Double Tragedy

By Grade Ndanu

Two individuals in hazmat suits stand in front of a Kenyan woman as the first cases of Covid-19 are diagnosed
Source: Yahoo Images

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: A Glimpse to the East

An image of a crowd of people in Wuhan, China. They are all wearing masks as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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.

Food Insecurity

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.

An image of Indian Census data from 2011. The country is seen with an immense population density per square kilometer. Uttar Pradesh and the city of Kolkata are most dense.
Demographics of India. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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.

Government Control

An image of the spread of the coronavirus in January. The Wuhan province is shown to be the most effective, colored in black.
Timeline of the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic from November 2019 to January 2020. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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:

“I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed.” — Dr. Bruce Aylward

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.

An image of China divided into province. The Xinjiang province is highlighted with the highest concentration of Muslims
Xinjiang Region, China. Source: Flickr, futureatlas.com. Creative Commons.

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.

An image of the cumulative and new cases of coronavirus in South Korea. The graph is showing a flattening of the curve.
2020 coronavirus cases in South Korea. Source: Wikipedia, KCDC. Creative Commons.

Conclusion

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.

Art for Human Rights: The For Freedoms Congress

FFCon Header. Source: For Freedoms

As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.

What is For Freedoms?

For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”

About the Congress

The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.

Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.

The 50 State Photo. Source: Ural Garrett, FFCon

Culture, Art, and Advocacy

The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.

We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.

Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.

The Flower of Praxis. Source: Rosa Gonzales, Creative Commons

Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.

One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.

Me shaping a flashlight out of clay at the workshop. Source: thisisnotagun.com, Creative Commons

The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,

We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.