HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS IN A PANDEMIC
PROTECT PEOPLE IN CUSTODY AND IN INSTITUTIONS
COVID-19, like other infectious diseases, poses a higher risk to populations that live in close proximity to each other for example in Ibadan or those who live in Batcher in Northern Nigeria no thanks to a poor urban and regional planning system in Nigeria. This disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and hypertension. Eighty percent of the people who have died of COVID-19 in China were over the age of 60. Nigeria first fatality was well above 60 with immunodeficiency owing to underlining ailments.
This risk is particularly acute in places of detention, such as prisons, jails, and immigration detention centres, as well as residential institutions for people with disabilities and nursing facilities for older people, where the virus can spread rapidly, especially if access to health care is already poor. States have an obligation to ensure medical care for those in their custody is at least equivalent to that available to the general population, and must not deny detainees, including asylum seekers or undocumented migrants, equal access to preventive, curative or palliative health care. Asylum seekers, refugees living in camps, and people experiencing homelessness may also be at increased risk because of their lack of access to adequate water and hygiene facilities.
Recommendations: Government agencies with authority over people housed in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers should consider reducing their population through appropriate supervised or early release of low-risk category of detainees for example, those whose scheduled release may be soon, those who are in pre-trial detention for non-violent and lesser offenses or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or not justified. Nigerian Correctional Services should look into its Act especially for aspects that empower it to free those in detention without trial for more than three months.
Detained individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus such as older people and people with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for similar release with regard to whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, guarantee access to treatment, and take into consideration factors such as the gravity of the crime committed and time served.
If safe and legal deportations are suspended due to the virus, the legal justification for detaining people pending deportation may no longer exist. In these cases, authorities should release detainees and institute alternatives to detention.
Authorities that operate prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers should publicly disclose their plans of action to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps that will be taken to contain the infection and protect prisoners, prison staff, and visitors. Iran had released 85,000 of her inmates; US also set free 37,000 persons held in immigration detention with further instruction from California Governor suspending further detainees in its juvenile facilities. It is on record that minimum of 73 inmates and 58 staff of Correctional Custody Service in New York City has contracted the virus. In Africa, some nations have set free those in detentions and prisons including Tunisia 1420, Libya 450, Niger Republic 1540, and Ethiopia 4000 etc.
Persons in any form of detention have the same right to health as the non-incarcerated population and are entitled to the same standards of prevention and treatment. The detained population and the general population have a compelling interest to know in advance what plans authorities have put in place for handling COVID-19.
The judiciary, Customs, immigration and Nigeria Correctional Services should work together to free those who by detention have exceeded their maximum prison terms if their trials were to be conclusive.
ROOT OUT DISCRIMINATION AND STIGMA, PROTECT PATIENTS CONFIDENTIALITY
Since the coronavirus outbreak, news reports from a number of countries including Nigeria have documented bias, racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against people of certain descent particularly, Asians. There is a conspiracy theory that suggests that Chinese scientists in conspiracy with their government brought to reality, the contents of a Fictional book titled THE FACE OF DARK written in 1981. Many governments confirmed the existence of such book and its reference to the deadly virus as WUHAN-400 as the characters in the book was set in Wuhan China. Some hold strong belief that China executed a weapon of biological warfare against other nations in her bit to curry super power to herself. This view opined that Chinese first experimented with the virus to ascertain the potency before exporting it to other nations.
Since January, the media have reported alarming incidents of hate crimes in the United Kingdom, the US, Spain, and Italy, among other countries, targeting people of Asian descent apparently linked to COVID-19. Senior US government officials, including President Donald Trump, have stoked anti-Chinese sentiment by referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus,” and in one incident reported by a White House correspondent, the “Kung Flu.” Anti-immigrant leaders like Victor Orban in Hungary and Matteo Salvini in Italy have seized on the pandemic to stoke xenophobic sentiment.
Reporting by the BBC in South Korea found that public health alerts around the virus may not have adequately protected the privacy of individuals with the virus. For instance in Nigeria, the name of the first fatality was known while details of other five deaths from the virus have since remained unknown. Although the Katsina governor gave information of its first fatality without mentioning name, Nigeria Centre for Diseases and Control said it is unethical to do so. There has been outcry by some Nigerians asking Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Ministry of Health to unveil details of those confirmed cases to public for them to know whether there has been some form of contact with them. Thankfully, this has not been done.
Recommendations: Governments should ensure that response measures to COVID-19 do not target or discriminate against particular religious or ethnic groups, and that responses are inclusive of and respect the rights of marginalized groups, including people with disabilities and older people. Governments should also ensure equal access to emergency services to people with disabilities and older people and that patient confidentiality is protected even as authorities take steps to identify those who may have been exposed to the virus.
Governments can also ensure that marginalized populations can access health care without discrimination. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, a paediatrician by training, has said that “[t]o effectively combat the outbreak means ensuring everyone has access to treatment, and is not denied health care because they cannot pay for it or because of stigma.”
Governments should ensure that all healthcare services related to COVID-19 are provided without stigma and discrimination of any kind, including grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and should make clear through public messaging campaigns that everyone has the right to access health care.
Governments should take steps to create firewalls between healthcare providers and undocumented migrants to reassure vulnerable populations that they do not risk reprisal or deportation if they access lifesaving care, especially in the context of seeking testing or treatment for COVID-19.
All governments have an obligation to ensure that a serious public health crisis does not also become a human rights crisis because people are unable to access adequate medical care. Governments need to take steps to ensure everyone has affordable and accessible medical care and treatment options.
Fisayo Ayita is a Human Rights Lawyer and works with Ayita Oluwafisayo Chambers which was registered to promote and protect Human Rights and Mediation Training Institute Nigeria. He is passionate about Rules of Law and Alternative Dispute Resolutions and is a Chartered Mediator and Conciliators by ICMC, Chartered Arbitrator UK, Chartered Tax Accountant CITN and Chartered Public Relations Professional NIPR. He’s on the Panel of Neutrals of the Abuja Multi-door Courthouse (AMDC). He can be reached at email@example.com