Article and interview originally published on HRW, 3 April 2020 – accessible here
The coronavirus has rapidly spread through Italy and Spain, making them two of the world’s COVID-19 hot spots. Elsewhere in Europe, the Hungarian government has used the virus as an excuse to grab power, and other governments are using it to target critics. Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia (ECA) director Hugh Williamson speaks with Amy Braunschweiger about governments’ responses to the virus – both good and bad – and about how a rights-based approach to addressing this public health crisis could help keep people safer and help curb the virus’ spread.
What are some of your biggest concerns about the coronavirus moving through Europe and Central Asia?
Europe is one of the world’s epicenters of COVID-19 cases. There’s an awful death toll in Italy and Spain with the numbers of dead going up dramatically every day, also in France and the United Kingdom. We’re really concerned for the general public across the region.
From the human rights perspective, it’s about making sure governments are doing everything they can to uphold and protect the right to health, including access to health services for everyone. It’s key to protect at-risk groups, such as older people, people with disabilities, and people with underlying medical conditions, and to do so in ways that support and not restrict them.
It’s about the rights of women, who are taking on the majority of caregiving during the crisis and the risk that it entails. Women also face elevated risk of domestic violence during lockdowns and have a harder time getting help. People in prisons or refugee detention centers are at high risk because of crowded, sometimes unhygienic conditions. And health workers on the front lines need protection and support – they’re doing the toughest jobs.
How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that are harmful to rights?
Some governments are using the COVID-19 crisis as a cover to grab power. On March 30, Hungary’s parliament adopted a draconian emergency law that would allow Prime Minister Orban to suspend laws, bypass Parliament, and adopt decrees on an unlimited basis. Worryingly, journalists and others who criticize Orban can be accused of spreading ‘false facts’ and ‘distorted facts’ and sent to prison for five years. This is a sell out of human rights standards and core democratic principles in European Union treaties, all in the name of tackling the coronavirus.
Another government taking steps to consolidate power under the guise of dealing with the virus is Azerbaijan. In March, prominent opposition leader Tofig Yagublu was arrested on dubious charges of hooliganism, shortly after the country’s president said he would crack down on opposition members, using measures designed to take on the coronavirus.
We’re monitoring the way emergency laws are being implemented across the region to check they are not being misused. In the UK, we’re scrutinizing the fact that the government has made it easier to detain people on mental health grounds. It has also weakened safeguards that make sure people who need social care get good quality support. In Kazakhstan, it shocked us to learn that hundreds of people have been put in jail for violating quarantine rules, at a time when it is vital to reduce prison populations.
How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that respect rights?
It’s really challenging for governments. We have to accept that. Governments across the region have incredibly painful policy choices to make. It’s in the best interest of people that they’re taking sometimes drastic measures to control people’s movement and shutting down businesses to protect peoples’ health. When taking these steps, governments should have time limits and good parliamentary oversight. And in most cases, that’s happening. We appreciate this, but we also need to keep holding governments to account.
Many governments, and not just in wealthier European countries, have sought to help citizens hit hard economically by the crisis. In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, tenants who cannot pay their utility bills and household internet connections are given more time to do so. Kazakhstan is giving monthly payments to undocumented and newly unemployed people.
Some countries are working to make sure women and girls can still access reproductive health services. England, Scotland, and Wales, for example, said they will permit women to take the pills required for a medical abortion at home, rather than traveling to a clinic.
What does COVID-19 mean for refugees in Greece and elsewhere?
The situation in many parts of Greece is desperate. On the Greek islands, tens of thousands of people are crammed into refugee camps designed for a few thousand. The government for the whole of March refused to accept asylum applications, which violates European Union and international law. We need better facilities and to spread asylum seekers out in smaller-scale facilities – such as hotels and apartments – across Greece. This is especially urgent for people with underlying medical conditions and others at particular risk. Better accommodation and better washing facilities, toilets, and soap are needed. And they should be accessible for people with disabilities.
Also, EU countries need to step up the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece. Europe has committed to relocating 1,600 unaccompanied children from these awful camps, and they should do this quickly.
The challenge for people held in immigration detention exists within many countries. We think there’s a particular danger of the virus spreading there. We’re calling on governments to release these people who can’t be deported any time soon and who don’t pose any risks to the public.
These releases are starting. Spain has said it will release people from immigration detention, and Belgium and the UK have both released 300 people in the past weeks. That needs to continue.
How prepared are ECA countries in terms of infrastructure to deal with COVID-19?
The coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in infrastructure that need to be fixed quickly.
There are many structural barriers to accessing health care even without the virus, such as out-of-pocket payments poorer people cannot afford, or problems for ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities to get proper health care. There’s a danger these will be reinforced during the crisis.
We need to make sure governments help health workers. In nearly every country there are severe shortages of masks, gloves, and other essential items.
In the UK, kids from poor families who rely on schools for their main meal of the day are at risk of going hungry. The government and local authorities now have schemes to replace free school meals with supermarket vouchers or other arrangements, which is progress.
Older people in the UK are also suffering. The government needs to urgently improve social care provisions for older people, especially in England, to ensure they can stay healthy at this time. Instead, it has suspended requirements for social care assessments and services arrangements.
There is also the problematic use of infrastructure. Moscow is installing one of the biggest surveillance camera systems in the world. The authorities want to use these cameras and possibly an online registration system to catch people breaking quarantine and access personal financial transactions. Using technology could be a good thing for controlling the virus. But Russia’s track record gives rise to concerns. In Armenia, authorities have passed a law giving very broad surveillance powers to use cell phone data to identify, isolate, and monitor coronavirus cases, at the expense of privacy rights.
Who within your region is most at risk to the virus?
In addition to the groups I’ve mentioned, I’d say people in prison. Facilities are often cramped and overcrowded. Even in the best prison it’s difficult to control the spread of the virus, which is bad for prisoners and staff. Italy has approved the early supervised release of some prisoners. The Turkish government has taken a good step with plans to accelerate the release of people from prisons because of the virus. However, some categories of prisoners risk being excluded. There are tens of thousands in Turkey who are imprisoned on spurious terrorism charges, especially people alleged to be linked to the Fethullah Gülen religious movement or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Some of these prisoners are older and sick and could die there. They deserve to be treated as human beings and be with their family members.