Covid-19: Pandemic restrictions have amplified discrimination against the most marginalized groups
Marginalized groups, including LGBTI+ people, sex workers, people who use drugs and the homeless, have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 regulations which have exposed them to further discrimination and violations of human rights, said Amnesty International in new report today assess the impact of pandemic restrictions across the world.
Based on an online survey of 54 civil society organizations in 28 countries, the report documents how an overly punitive approach to Covid-19 regulatory enforcement – which has seen people fined, arrested and imprisoned for failing to comply with public health measures – has resulted in already marginalized groups facing increased harassment and violence from security forces. This approach has also left them with reduced access to essential services, including food, health care and shelter.
More than two-thirds of survey respondents (69%) said state responses to Covid-19 had exacerbated the negative impact of pre-existing laws and regulations that criminalized and marginalized the people they worked with. Of these, 90% said the communities they worked with were specifically targeted and/or disproportionately affected when Covid-19 measures were applied. Among other punitive measures, the organizations reported the widespread use of fines, arrests, warnings, written warnings, and police orders to “move away” or stay away from a public place.
“While Covid-19 measures may have varied from country to country, governments’ approaches to tackling the pandemic have had one common failure. Overemphasizing the use of punitive sanctions against people for non-compliance with regulations, rather than helping them to better comply, had a hugely disproportionate effect on those who already faced systematic discrimination,” said Rajat Khosla, senior policy director at Amnesty International.
“When governments use punitive approaches to enforce public health measures, it just makes compliance more difficult. People who lost their livelihoods overnight and homeless people were criminalized for failing to comply with Covid-19 measures, rather than being supported to access housing or other elements essential.
“This myopia has left these groups at the mercy of violent and discriminatory policing and driven people to make riskier decisions to meet their basic needs, resulting in preventable illnesses, deaths and a wide range human rights abuses.”
Groups that were already over-policed before the pandemic have faced discrimination, unlawful use of force, and arbitrary detentions by security forces.
The vast majority (71%) of the 54 organizations that responded to Amnesty International’s survey said that people in the communities they work with, including sex workers, people who use drugs, LGBTI people and people requiring an abortion, were punished for breaching Covid -19 measures.
According to Mexican human rights organization Elementa, the country’s punitive “war on drugs” has allowed police forces to target people who use or possess drugs through the enforcement of drug-related measures. Covid-19. In an alarming case that sparked widespread protests, a construction worker, who was at the time under the influence of drugs, was arrested in the western state of Jalisco, allegedly for not wearing a face mask . He died in police custody a few days later. His body was covered with bruises and he had a gunshot wound to his leg.
In Belize, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Uganda, the Philippines, Tanzania and the UK, civil society organizations working on issues such as LGBTI rights, drug policy reform , the rights of sex workers and ending homelessness, reported that marginalized communities have seen an increase in surveillance and harassment by law enforcement and have been disproportionately affected by arrests, fines and detentions during the pandemic.
In Argentina, an organization run by sex workers reported police violence against transgender sex workers, including “arbitrary beatings, searches and detentions” and that sex workers were harassed by police “ for quarantine violations when they went to the neighborhood supermarket or pharmacy”.
Stigma and barriers to social protection, health and adequate housing
States’ reliance on punitive Covid-19 measures has also created additional barriers to accessing essential services and support, particularly for people experiencing poverty and systemic discrimination. Marginalized groups have often been accused, including by public officials, of breaking Covid-19 regulations and spreading the virus. This, in turn, has fueled violence against marginalized groups and discouraged them from seeking medical care because they fear arrest, detention or trial.
Although many governments have adopted some form of social protection measures, countries have failed to take into account the social and economic realities in which they have been implemented and have rarely provided comprehensive support to the most marginalized communities.
Among those disproportionately affected were those working in the informal sector or in precarious jobs. In Nepal, many Dalits who live below the poverty line and depend on a daily wage, are facing extreme debt and hunger due to the heightened challenges of the pandemic.
Organizations have also reported that stigma towards LGBTI people, for example, leads to their exclusion from state and municipal food donations and crisis centers in countries such as Indonesia and Zambia.
The Covid-19 measures have furthermore had a negative impact on the provision of essential health services. In particular, access to community-run services and outreach projects for marginalized people has become severely restricted or completely unavailable as health systems shift their focus to responding to Covid-19. In Canada, medical clinics run in partnership with health authorities as part of outreach projects for sex workers have been cancelled. Similar concerns have been reported over widespread closures of community-run health clinics in East African countries.
In some countries, the Covid-19 pandemic has been exploited to further restrict access to essential health services, such as harm reduction services and abortion. In India, the Hidden Pockets Collective, which defends sexual and reproductive rights, reported that the government initially did not recognize abortion as an essential health service; as a result, service providers told women that abortions were “non-essential” and should not take place during a pandemic. Abortion-related stigma also meant women felt unable to tell police why they were leaving their homes for treatment during the lockdown.
“Rather than relying on punitive measures that place all responsibility and blame on individuals who have already faced systematic discrimination, governments should have focused on protecting human rights for all and guarantee that marginalized communities have access to universal health care and essential services for their protection,” said Rajat Khosla.
“This is a critical lesson for governments to consider when negotiating a treaty to improve pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the auspices of the WHO. Placing human rights at the heart of government efforts to respond to public health emergencies is not an optional consideration, it is an obligation.
The report, “There is no help for our community: the impact of state responses to Covid-19 on groups affected by unjust criminalization” is available here.