On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic, setting off a wave of nationwide lockdowns and declarations of national emergency. The WHO called for governments to take urgent and aggressive action to mitigate the impact of the virus and curb its spread.
Millions of people around the world accepted previously unthinkable restrictions on freedoms as basic as leaving home, gathering for worship, assembling in public, or running businesses. We did so believing our sacrifice to be urgent and temporary. Little did we know that we were allowing governments across the world to tighten their grip on power and legitimise the unacceptable. Over the past nine months the world has slipped into a deep comatose state.
In Myanmar, the continued oppression of the Rohingya people has been described by Human Rights Watch as ‘an open prison without end’. Following the coronavirus outbreak, the Myanmar government has consistently blocked humanitarian access for international organisations, preventing them from investigating conditions in refugee camps, and has failed to provide testing and healthcare access. Since June 2019, a government block on mobile internet services in the Rakhine State has curbed access to information, thereby seriously affecting the Rohingya people’s understanding of the pandemic and important public health measures. Furthermore, the government has prevented virtually all Rohingya from obtaining citizenship, flagrantly violating its promise to the contrary. Under the guise of a robust pandemic response, the government bolstered ID requirements and imposed further limitations on movement. This resulted in the expansion of police and military extortion, arbitrary arrests, and violence, further increasing the vulnerability of the Rohingya people.
Similarly, in Uganda, the government has sought to weaponise Covid-19 for repression. On 18 November 2020, the Ugandan authorities arrested a popular presidential candidate, Bobi Wine, ahead of a planned campaign rally. The reason, police submitted, stemmed from a breach of Covid-19 regulations prohibiting the organising of large crowds. Following his arrest, Ugandan people took to the streets in protest where they were met by extreme violence from police and military forces, killing 16 people and injuring 45. On that same day the police also arrested another opposition candidate, Patrick Uboi Amuniat, severely disrupting his campaign. Alleging public health concerns, Ugandan authorities have consistently breached human rights and sought to silence both their political opponents and the media through violence, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests. Meanwhile, the rallies and processions for the ruling National Resistance Movement Party have continued undisrupted.
Since taking office in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, has carried out his proclaimed ‘War on Drugs’, resulting in the deaths of more than 5,500 suspected drug users and dealers during police operations. Thousands more have been killed by ‘death squads’ and other gunmen linked to the police. During the pandemic, government-imposed lockdown measures have resulted in the arrest and incarceration of tens of thousands of Filipinos. The state, under the pretence of protecting the population from the coronavirus, sped up the killings by more than fifty percent. Furthermore, the media has been consistently silenced and the opposition eliminated. ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network and known critic of President Duterte’s drugs policy, was forced to close and several journalists were arrested and put on trial, undermining access to credible and reliable information in the country.
While we were asleep, oppressive leaders from all around the world have sought to exploit and weaponise their pandemic response to legitimise the violent repression of human rights. Repeated calls for action by UN agencies and human rights organisations have fallen on deaf ears as the world’s major powers focus on their domestic Covid responses. We must not allow 72 years of work in the field of international human rights to regress so sharply. It is our moral responsibility to consistently expose, condemn and act to protect those who are most vulnerable. This is not a time to retreat into our own realist agendas, but a time to exercise compassion.
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