South Asia: COVID-19 hits marginalized hardest as pandemic used to escalate repression

  • Launch of Amnesty International’s global annual report
  • Pandemic lays bare massive systemic inequality in South Asia and worldwide, with ethnic minorities, health workers, women, and prisoners among the most severely impacted
  • COVID-19 weaponized by South Asian leaders to ramp up assault on human rights
  • New Secretary General AgnèsCallamard calls for a re-think and reset of broken systems

The global pandemic has exposed the terrible legacy of deliberately divisive and destructive policies that have perpetuated inequality, discrimination and oppression and paved the way for the devastation wrought by COVID-19 across South Asia and worldwide, Amnesty International said in its annual report published today.

Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights covers 149 countries and delivers a comprehensive analysis of human rights trends globally in 2020.

In it, the organization describes those already most marginalized, including women, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, as bearing the devastating brunt of the pandemic, as a result of decades of discriminatory policy decisions by world leaders. Health workers, migrant workers, and those in the informal sector - many at the frontlines of the pandemic - have also been betrayed by neglected health systems and patchy economic and social support.

The response to the global pandemic has been further undermined by leaders in South Asia and across the world who have ruthlessly exploited the crisis and weaponized COVID-19 to launch fresh attacks on human rights, the organization says.

“COVID-19 has brutally exposed and deepened inequality both within and between countries, and highlighted the staggering disregard our leaders have for our shared humanity.  Decades of divisive policies, misguided austerity measures, and choices by leaders not to invest in crumbling public infrastructure, have left too many easy prey to this virus,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s new Secretary General.

“We face a world in disarray. At this point in the pandemic, even the most deluded leaders would struggle to deny that our social, economic and political systems are broken.”

Pandemic has amplified decades of inequalities and erosion of public services

Across the South Asia region, existing inequalities in the enjoyment of economic and social rights and a culture of entrenched discrimination have left groups including ethnic minorities, IDPs, refugees, prisoners and women disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Afghanistan’s four million internally displaced people, who were already living in precarious conditions before the pandemic, faced difficulties in accessing health care and basic amenities. Meanwhile, the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh faced further restrictions, with COVID-19 aggravating an already overburdened health care system in the camps.

The report highlights a marked increase in gender-based and domestic violence across South Asia, with many women and LGBTI persons facing increased barriers to protection and support due to restrictions on freedom of movement; lack of confidential mechanisms for victims to report violence while isolated with their abusers, and reduced capacity or suspension of services.

Those on the frontlines of the pandemic - health workers, and those in the informal sector – suffered as a result of wilfully neglected health systems and pitiful social protection measures. In Bangladesh, many working in the informal sector have been left without an income or social protections due to lockdowns and curfews. While in Pakistan, health workers were attacked by police and members of the public after patients were turned away or when the bodies of COVID-19 victims were not immediately returned to their families, as part of the protocol to control the spread of the disease.

Prisoners in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic. In environments where physical distancing is difficult to achieve and access to health care is limited, inmates have struggled to access soap, proper sanitation, or personal protective equipment, and control measures have led to serious human rights violations.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the authorities prevented Muslims from burying people who had died as a result of COVID-19 according to religious rites, forcibly cremating the bodies instead.

“In 2020, COVID-19 exacerbated and exposed the inequality and discrimination long faced by some of the most marginalized groups across South Asia. From women and refugees to ethnic minorities, prisoners and IDPs, the pandemic hit these groups hardest,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.

South Asian governments weaponize pandemic to further assault human rights

Governments across South Asia used COVID-19 as a pretext to escalate crackdowns on the freedoms of expression and assembly, targeting critics of their responses to the pandemic.  

In Sri Lanka, the police warned that legal action would be taken against people publishing posts on social media that were critical of the government’s COVID-19 response, with several social media commentators arrested following the announcement.

Nearly 1,000 people were charged under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, while 353 people were detained. Among the first targets were journalists arrested for reports which alleged corruption in the use of funds designated for COVID-19 relief efforts.

In Pakistan, the Electronic Crimes Act was repeatedly invoked to charge or arrest journalists for critical comments made online, often accompanied by vicious and coordinated online attacks.

Some leaders have gone a step further, using the distraction of the pandemic to clamp down on criticism – and critics – unrelated to the virus, and perpetrate other human rights violations while the gaze of the world’s media was elsewhere. In India, Narendra Modi further cracked down on civil society activists, including through counter-terrorism raids on their homes and premises. While in Sri Lanka, the new government continued to crack down on human rights defenders, including activists, journalists, law enforcement officers and lawyers.

“Across South Asia, we have seen governments cynically exploit the pandemic to silence critics and extend repressive measures aimed at muzzling dissent. This has had a hugely damaging impact on media freedom and the vibrancy of civil society in the region,” said Yamini Mishra.

National self-interest has trumped international cooperation in COVID response

World leaders have also wreaked havoc on the international stage, hampering collective recovery efforts by blocking or undermining international cooperation.

These include: 

  • Leaders of rich countries, such as former President Trump, circumventing global cooperation efforts by buying up most of the world’s supply of vaccines, leaving little to none for other countries. These rich countries also have failed to push pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge and technology to expand the supply of global COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The G2O offering to suspend debt payments from the poorest countries, but demanding that the money be repaid with interest later.

“The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the world’s inability to cooperate effectively in times of dire global need,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The only way out of this mess is through international cooperation.  States must ensure vaccines are quickly available to everyone, everywhere, and free at the point of use. Pharmaceutical companies must share their knowledge and technology so no one is left behind.  G20 members and international financial institutions must provide debt relief for the poorest 77 countries to respond and recover from pandemic.”

Failed by their governments, protest movements the world over have stood up

As many South Asian governments ramped up repression during the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the region continued to fearlessly stand up for their human rights.

With the conflict in Afghanistan entering its twentieth year, and against the backdrop of peace talks, Afghan human rights defenders continued to be wounded and killed with impunity on a weekly basis. A joint commission for the protection of human rights defenders, a significant step forward announced in December, has yet to take any significant action to improve the situation.

In Pakistan, health workers were beaten and detained for peacefully protesting their lack of personal protective equipment. In Sri Lanka, thousands of people were arrested for violating the COVID-19 curfew, despite it having no legal basis, and excessive force was also used to arrest activists peacefully carrying out a Black Lives Matter solidarity protest in strict observance of COVID-19 guidelines.

In Bangladesh, people exercising their right to gather peacefully were often met with violence from the police and members of the ruling Awami League party.

“In the face of brutal targeted violence and an escalation of repression during the COVID-19 pandemic, people across South Asia have continued to voice dissent and defend their human rights. During a year when silver linings have been hard to come by, that is something to celebrate,” said Yamini Mishra.