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Coronavirus proves we need a global response to improve human rights

March 20, 2020 at 4:13 pm

Rohingya’s wait for food aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on 30 November 2017 [Fırat Yurdakul/Anadolu Agency]

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a serious test to how different societies and countries can work together to tackle an unprecedented force. Many governments and individuals have grappled the situation by acting selflessly and honourably by breaking down current societal and cultural barriers and indifferences. However, human rights abuses have long preceded widespread diseases and in many cases, the novel coronavirus has intensified many deep rooted violations.

As the virus continues to spread rapidly around the world, so does the fear among many due to the virus’ unpredictable nature. Adding further to that fear has been the different responses and attempts by governments to contain the outbreak. Citizens in Israel have had their very own civil liberties violated by the government’s decision to track the mobile phones of people with coronavirus or those suspected to have contracted the disease.

Israel has a longstanding history of violating democratic rights, destroying Palestinian homes, carrying out arbitrary arrests and of course, its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed the emergency regulation without a court order and likened the fight of containing the virus to one of fighting terrorism. The new step would allow the government to access phone data from individuals who test positive for the virus. They would then document the places the person visited over the coming weeks and collate a list of people the infected person had been in direct contact with. Authorities would use the information to contact people who may have been exposed to the virus and demand they go into quarantine.

READ: Israel rights org: ‘abuse of Palestinians overrides fear of COVID-19’

This new measure has been condemned by civil rights activists, politicians and health experts who claim the Israeli government was going too far and the move would violate individual privacy. Although Israel has skilfully implemented strict travel restrictions and compulsory self-isolations, given its historical abuse of power, spying strategies must be used carefully to ensure the minimization of privacy infringements. The access to information should be limited to professionals in specific fields related to combatting the virus to ensure people’s privacy is protected from any misconduct.

Israelis wear masks following the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, on 2 March 2020 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Israelis wear masks following the coronavirus outbreak in Israel on 2 March 2020 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

To add to the apprehension and uncertainty of Israel’s intentions, missing from the Health Ministry’s website was information and guidance about the coronavirus outbreak in Arabic. Muhammad Barakeh, chairman of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee which represents Arab citizens and Palestinian groups in Israel, saw a huge lack of information in Arabic about the pandemic and how people would need to protect themselves. With 20 per cent of Israel’s population made up of Arabs, this failure by the Health Ministry further cements the deep-seated and ongoing intolerance towards Palestinians.

During a ruthless pandemic like this one, there must be no space for discrimination.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

Another major concern is the impact the virus could have if it reaches and spreads within the Rohingya community. The virus is likely to be spreading undetected through Myanmar and other parts of South-East Asia. Myanmar has close borders with Bangladesh, India, Thailand and China, which all have confirmed cases. It is only a matter of time before it reaches minority communities.

READ: Arab silence on the Uyghur genocide is no surprise

In the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Rohingyas are confined to camps or live in partially destroyed villages with no appropriate sanitation. While in Bangladesh nearly one million Rohingya refugees live in refugee camps in close proximity to each other. Although the confirmed COVID-19 cases remain in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation, the Rohingya are extremely vulnerable due to their living conditions. Four to five share a flimsy tent, sleep on muddy floors and struggle to find clean water, soap or hand sanitiser to practice good hygiene, exposing them to a potential outbreak.

According to UNHCR, there are at least 12 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees living between Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran. As governments prepare their billion dollar coronavirus packages what happens to these stateless people that rely solely on the goodwill of others? It is essential the international community and the United Nations consider and help these minority groups and developing countries by treating and combating the spread of the virus, as well as protecting them and their rights during this crisis.

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]

Refugees at the makeshift camp between Syria and Jordan on 1 March 2017 [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]

Labour Laws

One of the biggest problems of the coronavirus pandemic is the impact it has had on countries’ labour; sick leave payments, ability to work from home and unemployment insurance. Depending on a person’s work, their benefits and how the outbreak may affect them relies heavily on their employer and the rules of each individual country. Workers in some sectors may be able to self-quarantine and work from home entirely, whereas others may be required to continue going to work, making them vulnerable to the disease like those in the public health and services sector.

With the virus’ high transmission rate, the question surrounding paid sick leave needs to be urgently addressed. Country’s including the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain offer a minimum two weeks full paid sick leave. Saudi Arabia 30 days and Egypt 90 days. Additionally, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia offer mandatory medical insurance to their employees. In Egypt, employers are obliged to provide free treatment and medication at an assigned clinic, including free hospital treatment. As health experts encourage people that are sick to stay home and self-quarantine, for some staying home is entirely impossible.

READ: UAE suspends new labour permits over coronavirus panic

Governments are being forced to take drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus whilst protecting citizens that have been directly and indirectly affected. As more people become infected, stock markets collapse, schools close, jobs disappear and countries go into lockdown, a united global response has never been so crucial. Overcoming this pandemic means collectively overcoming the deep-rooted and discriminatory imbalances based on wealth, social class, gender, race or religion and protecting the fundamental rights of all human beings.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.