OPINION: Pandemic Reverberations

7 April 2020 7:49 pm

The 21 day extended lockdown has reached its halfway mark and left in its trail an unprecedented humanitarian and health crisis. The justification of the sudden lockdown by the State as a necessary intervention to prevent COVID-19 transmission, however, was bereft of any planning and preparedness.

It witnessed, instead, the suspension of human rights– including people’s rights to life, health and healthcare, movement, livelihoods, food, their right to be free from discrimination, stigma, and violence as well as their right to privacy.

Notwithstanding global evidence and reiteration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that lockdowns by themselves will not break the chain of infections,  and  must be accompanied by other measures, the Government continues to implement the lockdown  that has frequently witnessed the use of violent, coercive and discriminatory measures. It has created a new form of captivity that is witnessing far reaching implications for social, economic and psychosocial well-being of the people.

The deaths of the 22 migrant workers, lakhs of migrants – women, children and men – undertaking risky journeys mostly on foot, little heed / attention to vulnerable communities  living in  crowded unhygienic settlements or in state government shelters, with little or no physical distancing and often inadequate food, as well as limited access to health care and other essential needs due to suspension of transport are merely some evidences of this travesty. 

The journeys of reverse migration saw lakhs of people facing police harassment and beatings, stigmatization and even criminalization. Those who made it back just before or during the lockdown, continue to experience uncertain access to health care, health information, quarantine facilities, and even social stigma associated with risk of transmission. Several more migrants in different States continue to experience the harsh realities of  poor living conditions, with limited access to food and other basic needs as well as inadequate disease surveillance and care.

Evidently, despite claims of the COVID-19 affecting everyone, the pandemic and responses to it have disproportionately impacted  the lives of the marginalised – the poor, daily wage workers, sex workers, migrants, homeless people, persons in institutions, prisoners, persons with disabilities and mental health issues, girls and women, transpersons, etc. 

Various dimensions of everyday life stand impacted, leading to escalation of poverty, hunger, fear, gender violence, mental distress and other social and economic consequences.

Moreover, in the context of strategies for containment and management of the infection, the utter disregard by the State and its agencies of the privacy and confidentiality of people at risk or diagnosed with COVID-19 has led to discrimination and stigma.  The public disclosure of the names and other identifiers of people by several states, for instance, has led to stigmatisation of not only the person at risk of infection or infected with COVID, but the entire family. Not only has this not enabled the containment of the infection, such arbitrary and reactionary measures have, on the contrary, caused fear, panic and isolation and encouraged impunity to vigilantism based on deeply rooted prejudices. In this regard, health workers have not been spared either – names of doctors with COVID-19 infection have been made public. 

The emergent apprehension has even led to violence against community level health workers or ASHA in the process of providing information to households, and identifying persons with health issues such as fever, etc. were beaten and stones pelted at some doctors. Persons quarantined or admitted for observation and care and their family members have been treated like criminals. The importance of maintaining confidentiality in such times has been side-lined, leading to a complete violation of human rights and consequent trauma.

Inevitably, health system globally as in India are severely challenged by COVID-19. In India, the pandemic has exacerbated the shortfalls in the existing poorly resourced and functioning health system. Further, measures such as discontinuation of essential health services in many health facilities, immunization, etc. along with the suspension of transportation has impacted, particularly the most vulnerable people’s  access to health care for chronic health issues such as cancer, TB, HIV, and reproductive and sexual health needs such as deliveries, abortion services, etc. Health care workers, particularly frontline health care workers, who form the basis of the health system and its response to the pandemic are at the highest risk of infection. Given this, the shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) is unethical and remains a critical concern.

The number of health care workers infected is on the rise and in the absence of the necessary infrastructure and protective measures, it can potentially impact their work due to fear, concern for their health and lives. The health care workers’ right to a safe working environment has been violated repeatedly by the health system, and is being tested in the worst possible situation.

Leading up to 14 April when the current lockdown period concludes, the State must lay the foundation / prepare the groundwork to ensure that people are able to  resume  their  lives livelihoods, while fortifying the health system, including information and services to “isolate, test, treat and trace” persons at risk or diagnosed as COVID.  Not doing so would lead to untold harm and trauma to the people, who may not be at a risk of COVID-19 infection, but whose lives have been adversely and permanently affected.

Care, compassion and solidarity have probably never been more relevant than now when physical distancing, isolation and lock downs are the norms in many of the countries globally as also in India. In the context of a pandemic, while a wide range of knowledge and expertise and the involvement of myriad state and non-state actors is necessary, the State’s accountability must be uncompromised towards advancing and fulfilling the human rights and health rights of the people. 

This guest blog was written by Sarojini Nadimpally & Deepa V of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Amnesty International India.