Covid-19: Pandemic restrictions magnified discrimination against most marginalized groups

Marginalized groups, including LGBTI+ people, sex workers, people who use drugs, and those experiencing homelessness, were disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 regulations that exposed them to further discrimination and human rights abuses, Amnesty International said in a new report today assessing the impact of pandemic restrictions across the globe.

Based on an online survey of 54 civil society organizations in 28 countries, the report documents how an overly punitive approach to the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations—that saw people fined, arrested and jailed for non-compliance with public health measures— resulted in already marginalized groups facing increased harassment and violence from security forces. The approach also left them with reduced access to essential services including food, healthcare and housing.

More than two thirds of survey respondents (69%) said that state responses to Covid-19 had exacerbated the negative impact of pre-existing laws and regulations that criminalized and marginalized the people they work with. Of these, 90% reported that the communities they work with were specifically targeted and/or disproportionately impacted when Covid-19 measures were enforced. Among other punitive measures, organizations reported the widespread use of fines, arrests, cautions, written warnings and police orders to “move on” or stay away from a public place.

“Though Covid-19 measures may have varied from country to country, governments’ approaches to tackling the pandemic have had a common failing. An overemphasis on using punitive sanctions against people for non-compliance with regulations, rather than supporting them to better comply, had a grossly disproportionate effect on those who already faced systematic discrimination,” said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Policy.

People who lost their livelihoods overnight and people experiencing homelessness were criminalized for not adhering to Covid-19 measures, rather than being supported to access housing or other essentials

Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Policy

“When governments use punitive approaches to enforce public health measures, it simply makes it harder to comply. People who lost their livelihoods overnight and people experiencing homelessness were criminalized for not adhering to Covid-19 measures, rather than being supported to access housing or other essentials. 

“This short-sightedness left these groups at the mercy of violent and discriminatory policing and drove people to take riskier decisions to meet their basic needs, resulting in preventable illness, deaths and a wide array of human rights abuses.”

Punitive policing

Groups who were already over-policed before the pandemic have experienced discrimination, unlawful use of force and arbitrary detentions by security forces.

The overarching majority (71%) of the 54 organizations who responded to Amnesty International’s survey stated that people from the communities they work with, including sex workers, people who use drugs, LGBTI people and people in need of abortion, were punished for breaching Covid-19 measures.

According to the Mexican human rights organization Elementa, the country’s punitive “war on drugs” has enabled police forces to target people who use or possess drugs through the enforcement of Covid-19 related measures. In an alarming case that sparked widespread protests, a construction worker, who at the time was 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 days later. His body was covered in bruises and he had a bullet wound in his leg.

In Belize, Indonesia, Mexico Nigeria, Uganda, the Philippines, Tanzania, and UK, civil society organizations working on issues including LGBTI rights, drug policy reform, the rights of sex workers and ending homelessness, have reported that marginalized communities have seen an increase in surveillance and harassment from law enforcement and have been disproportionately affected by arrests, fines and detentions during the pandemic.

In Argentina, a sex worker-led organization reported police violence against transgender sex workers, including “beatings, searches and arbitrary detentions” and that sex workers were harassed by police “for quarantine violations when they went to the supermarket or the neighbourhood pharmacy.”

Stigma and barriers to social protection, health and adequate housing

States’ reliance on punitive Covid-19 measures have also created additional obstacles to accessing essential services and support, especially for people experiencing poverty and systemic discrimination. Marginalized groups were often blamed, including by public officials, for breaching Covid-19 regulations and for spreading the virus. This has, in turn, fuelled violence against marginalized groups and discouraged them from seeking medical care because they fear being arrested, detained or judged.

Although many governments adopted some form of social protection measures, countries failed to consider the social and economic realities in which they were implemented, and rarely provided comprehensive support for the most marginalized communities.

Among those disproportionately impacted were people working in the informal sector or in insecure employment. In Nepal, many Dalits who live below the poverty line and rely on daily wages, faced extreme debt and hunger due to the increased challenges of the pandemic.

Organizations also reported that stigma towards LGBTI people, for example, resulted in their exclusion from state and municipal food donations and crisis centres in countries including Indonesia and Zambia.

Rather than relying on punitive measures that places all the responsibility and blame on individuals who already faced systematic discrimination, governments should have focused on protecting human rights for all

Rajat Khosla

Covid-19 measures further had a negative impact on the provision of essential health services. In particular, access to community-run services and outreach projects aimed at marginalized individuals became severely restricted or completely unavailable as health systems pivoted their attention to respond to Covid-19. In Canada, medical clinics run in partnership with health authorities at sex worker outreach projects were cancelled. Similar concerns were reported regarding widespread closures of community-run health clinics in East African countries.

In some countries, the Covid-19 pandemic was exploited to further restrict access to essential health services, such as harm reduction services and abortion. In India, the organization Hidden Pockets Collective, which advocates for sexual and reproductive rights, reported that the government initially failed to recognize abortion as an essential health service; as a result, service providers told women that abortions were “not essential” and should not happen in a pandemic. The stigma related to abortion also meant women felt unable to tell police why they were leaving their homes for healthcare during lockdown.

“Rather than relying on punitive measures that places all the responsibility and blame on individuals who already faced systematic discrimination, governments should have focused on protecting human rights for all and ensuring that marginalized communities have access to universal healthcare and essential services for their protection,” said Rajat Khosla.

“This is a crucial lesson that governments must take into account while negotiating a treaty to improve pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the auspices of the WHO. Putting human rights at the heart of government efforts to address public health emergency responses is not an optional consideration, it is an obligation.”


The report, ‘There is no help for our community: The impact of States’ Covid-19 responses on groups affected by unjust criminalization’ is available here.

A blog, Using the wrong tool for the job: Four lessons from states’ responses to Covid-19, providing more background behind the research behind the report, is available here.