Using the wrong tool for the job: Four lessons from states’ responses to Covid-19

Carrie Eisert, Amnesty International’s Policy Advisor for Gender, Racial Justice, Refugees and Migrants

In March 2020, as the world began to shut down in response to the rapid spread of Covid-19, Amnesty staff scrambled to deliver our first assessment of states’ human rights obligations in the context of a global pandemic. A flurry of activity and collaboration resulted in our first public statement on 12 March, just as we said goodbye at the office, laptops and hand sanitizer in hand, with a plan to work from home that was meant to last just two weeks.

More than two years of (mostly) remote working later, we are ready to share our report, entitled There is no help for our community: The impact of states’ Covid-19 responses on groups affected by unjust criminalization’. The product of more than 20 months of participatory research with 54 community-led organizations in 28 countries, it explains how government responses that saw people fined, arrested and jailed for non-compliance with public health measures, had a disproportionate impact on society’s most marginalized and criminalized communities. The damaging consequences for groups including LGBTI people in Zambia and Kyrgyzstan, sex workers in Argentina and France, people who use drugs in Mexico, and people in need of an abortion in India, are just some of those included.  

From the outset of this research, the uneven impact of Covid-19 on certain groups, and issues of stigma and discrimination, were foremost in our minds. We were guided by a range of questions about the possible consequences of repressive Covid-19 measures: who would be most impacted by travel bans and restrictions? Would people living in poverty or experiencing homelessness be able to manage “stay at home” orders without the necessary resources? What would be the impacts on people needing access to specific healthcare services such as abortion, drug treatment, gender-affirming healthcare, or HIV treatment?

Based on the human rights concerns that emerged in past epidemics, we knew that when states use punitive policies to achieve public health aims, it’s rarely a winning strategy.

And so it proved once again. Our research shows that governments have largely failed to learn from previous public health emergencies about the importance of respecting human rights and engaging with communities to build trust and solidarity.

Amnesty International is calling for governments to put human rights at the centre of all future pandemic responses. Here are the top four lessons that must be learned.

Don’t use punishment to promote public health

Governments prioritized punishment over support and used security forces to enforce public health rules. This meant that people who were unable to easily isolate and “stay at home”, such as those experiencing homelessness or sex workers who needed to go out to work, were put at even greater risk of criminalization and a whole range of human rights abuses from the authorities.

Guarantee that everyone is supported

Abortion, contraception, gender-affirming healthcare and harm reduction services for people who use drugs are “essential” healthcare services. However, governments’ failure to treat them as such during the pandemic meant that people requiring these services faced unnecessary barriers and were denied support that could have enabled them to stay safe and better comply with Covid-19 restrictions.

Address the drivers of marginalization and exclusion

The stigma associated with criminalization meant that many marginalized communities were scapegoated for supposedly spreading the virus. This in turn discouraged people from seeking healthcare and social protection because they feared being judged, arrested, detained or otherwise punished.

Ensure participation of marginalized people and communities 

Unjust criminalization created barriers to the meaningful consultation and participation of individuals and organizations whose expertise and experience could have informed and improved pandemic responses. A focus on protecting human rights would benefit the health and wellbeing of everyone.

For more information about the report, see here.