MENA: COVID-19 amplified inequalities and was used to further ramp up repression

  • Launch of Amnesty International’s global annual report
  • Pandemic lays bare systemic inequality in MENA and worldwide with refugees, migrants and prisoners severely impacted
  • Throughout 2020 MENA governments ramped up assault on freedom of expression and in some cases punished health workers who spoke out
  • World leaders hampered recovery by undermining international cooperation
  • New Secretary General Agnès Callamard calls for 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 globally and within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 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. 

The report also highlights how the response to the global pandemic has been further undermined by leaders in MENA and across the world who have ruthlessly exploited the crisis to continue their attacks on human rights. 

“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 amplifies risks for most vulnerable in MENA region 

Across the MENA existing inequalities in the enjoyment of economic and social rights and a culture of entrenched discrimination left some groups of people including prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities, disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic. 

In a clear illustration of the extent of institutionalized discrimination in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli authorities failed to provide vaccinations to five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza when the vaccination drive began in December 2020. This move flagrantly violated Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under international law.

Many refugees, migrants and internally displaced people already at heightened risk from COVID-19 due to overcrowding in camps and detention centres such as those in Libya also faced restrictions on their movement limiting their access to employment, protection and the ability of humanitarian workers to deliver aid.

The pandemic also aggravated the already vulnerable situation of migrant workers across MENA who are bound by the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While some Gulf countries brought in measures to waive penalties for overstaying visas, many migrant workers also faced arbitrary dismissal from their jobs and were not paid for months. In Jordan, thousands of migrant workers who lost their jobs rarely had access to social protection or alternative employment.

In Libya minorities from historically neglected regions such as Tabus and Touaregs were denied adequate health care either due to their inability to access hospitals controlled by rival armed groups or at times a lack of official documents. 

Prison officials across MENA failed to use the pandemic to address endemic overcrowding by releasing pre-trial detainees or those detained for offenses not recognized by international law. COVID-19 exacerbated already inadequate healthcare in unsanitary prisons. In Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia authorities withheld healthcare as punishment, leading to some deaths in Egypt. 

Across MENA 2020 was a catastrophic year for prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities who are already marginalized and due to COVID-19 have found their situation more precarious than ever. The pandemic has amplified divisions, discrimination and inequalities that already exist in the region.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

“Across MENA 2020 was a catastrophic year for prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities who are already marginalized and due to COVID-19 have found their situation more precarious than ever. The pandemic has amplified divisions, discrimination and inequalities that already exist in the region. Governments must prioritize the provision of adequate medical care in prisons and to alleviate overcrowding, all those who have been arbitrarily detained must be released,” said Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

 “It is crucial that governments in MENA ensure the health care they provide, including vaccines, is delivered without discrimination.”

Health workers unprotected

Health workers on the frontlines of the pandemic suffered as a result of wilfully neglected health systems and pitiful social protection measures.

In Egypt and Iran health workers were threatened or arrested for voicing criticism or concern over the authorities’ responses to the pandemic. In Egypt at least nine health workers were detained using terror laws for speaking out about the handling of the pandemic.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria, workers were not provided adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“The courage shown by health workers who have put their lives on the line despite tremendous risks must be recognized. With slow vaccination efforts and the pandemic showing no sign of abating in MENA, it is crucial that authorities ensure health workers are adequately protected,” said Heba Morayef.

Repression continues as some MENA leaders weaponize pandemic

In MENA, governments across the region continued to clamp down on peaceful critics and perpetrate human rights violations. Many of them responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by declaring states of emergency or in some cases passing dedicated legislation that created additional restrictions on freedom of expression or assembly. 

Across the Gulf states in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates authorities used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further supress  the right to freedom of expression, including by prosecuting individuals, who posted comments on social media about government responses to the pandemic, for spreading “false news.”

Authorities in Algeria and Morocco declared a health emergency and punished legitimate criticism over the pandemic with arrests or prosecutions. In Morocco a new health emergency law was used to prosecute human rights activists and citizen journalists for criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. In Egypt and Iran journalists and social media users faced harassment or arrest for critical comments and coverage of the pandemic. Even in Tunisia, activists faced criminal charges for their criticism of local authorities’ distribution of aid during the national lockdown.

In Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia authorities continued with their relentless persecution of human rights defenders, protesters and peaceful critics. In Israel authorities resorted to raids, judicial harassments and travel bans to intimidate peaceful critics – including Amnesty International’s campaigner Laith Abu Zeyad who continues to face a travel ban.

Failure of 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

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

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

“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.”

Protests to demand rights continue

While MENA governments have resorted to repressive means to intimidate critics over their responses to the pandemic, across the region, people have continued to demand their right to health, justice and a dignified livelihood. 

In Morocco and Tunisia health workers organized protests against the lack of adequate protection measures including insufficient PPE.  

In Lebanon, just days after the devastating Beirut Port explosion security forces cracked down on unarmed protesters calling for justice for the victims with unlawful force recklessly firing tear gas, rubber bullets and pellets at unarmed demonstrators injuring more than 230 people.

Even before the onset of the pandemic a clear pattern emerged of security forces across the region using often excessive, unlawful and sometimes lethal force to disperse protests from Iraq to Iran. 

In Libya, rare protests in the east and west against corruption and unaccountable militias and armed groups, were met with lethal force and abductions.

In Tunisia, protests against worsening economic hardship took place after months of lockdowns and were met with disproportionate unlawful force and sweeping arrests.

The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in the Gaza Strip continued to crack down on dissent, including by stifling freedom of expression and assembly, attacking journalists and detaining opponents. 

“As leaders across MENA exploited the pandemic to tighten their stranglehold on freedom of expression, the people in the region have continued to show that they will not remain silent the face of oppression and injustice,” said Heba Morayef. 

“From brave human rights defenders and journalists speaking out to health workers demanding their rights people across MENA have stood up to demand social and economic justice and these demands have only intensified in light of the pandemic.”