How not to handle a pandemic

10 of the worst government responses

There are no easy solutions to the COVID-19 crisis – but it’s clear what doesn’t work. This pandemic has elicited truly jaw-dropping responses from some governments, marked by opportunism, bizarre science and total contempt for human rights.

Here’s a guide to how not to handle a pandemic - courtesy of some of the most powerful people in the world.

1. Weld people inside their homes

In April, residents of an apartment block in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan returned from work to find that the front door of the building had been welded shut. It later emerged that a woman who lived in the building had been taken to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms, but residents were given no information - some didn’t realize they were prisoners until the next morning. For the fourteen days that the building was sealed, they could not get anything from outside, except for packages which police officers checked. Eventually, the door was opened after a social media outcry. People have reportedly been locked in their homes in several other parts of Kazakhstan, as well as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

2. Make people homeless

Authorities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, made physical distancing even more difficult when they demolished dozens of homes belonging to day labourers, rendering at least 1,000 people homeless amid the pandemic. Most of those whose homes were destroyed had recently lost their jobs due to shutdowns, and the demolitions made a bad situation worse. They are now sheltering under tarpaulins or plastic sheeting – forced to huddle together in heavy rain.

3. Punish whistleblowers

Chinese medical professionals who tried to sound the alarm in the early days of the crisis were harshly punished. In late December, Dr Li Wenliang, who worked in Wuhan Central Hospital, sent a warning to fellow medics in a private chat. He was detained, accused of “spreading false rumours” and forced to sign a document saying he had disturbed public order. Tragically, Dr Li died of COVID-19 in February.

4. Organize mass gatherings

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has made a point of ignoring warnings and guidance by international bodies about COVID-19, even encouraging people to attend religious celebrations and outdoor events. On 14 March, the government organized a march to show solidarity with people affected by the virus, calling it “Love in the Time of COVID-19”.

Thousands of people took to the streets without taking any physical distancing measures. Ortega’s support for this type of mass gathering is especially surprising given that his government has been preventing and suppressing any form of social protest for the past two years – often with lethal force.

5. Promote dangerous theories about treatment

At a press conference in April, US President Trump suggested that doctors should look into whether injecting disinfectant inside the body would kill the virus, and also proposed irradiating patients' bodies with UV light.

Belarusian President Lukashenko, who has introduced no physical distancing measures in the country, has said that trips to the sauna, working the fields, and drinking vodka would cure people of the virus.

6. Pretend it’s not happening

Brazil’s President Bolsanaro has dismissed the virus as “a bit of a cold” and joined in with protests against lockdown measures.

7. Kill people who break curfews

On 27 March, the Kenyan government introduced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. According to Human Rights Watch, at least six people were killed by the police for breaking the curfew in the first ten days alone.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte said he had ordered police to shoot “dead” people protesting or questioning quarantine measures.

8. Open fire on panicked prisoners

Poor conditions and overcrowding in Iranian prisons led people in detention to protest in April. Instead of trying to improve conditions, the authorities responded with deadly force. In several prisons, live ammunition and tear gas were used to suppress protests, killing around 35 prisoners and injuring hundreds of others, according to credible sources. In at least one prison, security forces beat those taking part in the protest action, possibly leading to the death of an inmate.

9. Restrict access to food, water and aid

Food and water supplies are running out in some refugee camps, and government responses are not helping. For example, on 20 April Bosnian authorities cut off water supplies to Vucjak camp in a bid to force inhabitants to move to a new site. 

Rukban refugee camp on the Jordan/Syria border is home to about 10,000 people, mostly displaced by the Syrian conflict. Conditions are appalling in the camp, where there is only one basic medical centre with no doctors and just a few nurses. In March, Jordan announced it would not allow relief aid to pass through its territory to deliver assistance and medical equipment to the camp, citing COVID-19 concerns.

10. Censor information, lock up journalists

Governments around the world have censored and blocked crucial information about the virus.

In Venezuela, journalist Darvinson Rojas spent 12 days in detention after reporting on the spread of the virus in the country – he was charged with ‘advocacy of hatred’. 

In Egypt, security forces arrested a journalist for questioning official statistics on his personal Facebook page. He was held at an undisclosed location with no contact with the outside world for nearly a month, before being brought in front of prosecutors to face accusations of “spreading false news” and “joining a terrorist organization”.

And in Bangladesh, at least 20 journalists have been intimidated, assaulted or harassed by members of the ruling party, and in some cases arrested, for reporting pilferage, corruption and lack of accountability in relief distribution during lockdown.

A pandemic is no excuse for human rights violations. For daily reporting on global government responses, as well as recommendations for states, see Amnesty’s COVID-19 hub