Even During a Pandemic, Protect Rights & Prevent Atrocities
April 7, 2020

COVID-19 has leveled the playing field in many ways—its indiscriminate nature and rapid spread remind us all of our fragility, but also our shared humanity. In many ways, the pandemic has brought the world together as we face a common enemy. But, the pandemic has also set off quick, desperate, and sweeping government actions—some of which threaten democracy and human rights.

There is a fine line between exercising power to protect people and misusing it to divide or deprive individuals of the freedoms to which they are entitled. So, especially in this moment of chaos and upheaval, we must remain vigilant in ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable are protected. We must ensure that those underlying dynamics that can lead to mass atrocities remain in check. The virus does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, race, or legal status—and neither should the global response. 

Emerging reports from around the world are showing how COVID-19 is being used as a cover to further discriminate marginalized populations. Hateful rhetoric is reinforcing dangerous concepts of us versus them. Critical programs are being slashed or stopped altogether, with governments using the virus as justification for diverting resources from those who need them most. “Othering”—the consistent seed of mass atrocities and genocide—is on the rise during this pandemic. We have a duty to keep a watchful eye and hold fomenters of hate accountable, even whilst isolating in our own homes.

Emerging reports from around the world are showing how COVID-19 is being used as a cover to further discriminate marginalized populations.

Fernand de Varenes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, warns that some politicians and groups have been exploiting fears surrounding the disease to scapegoat certain communities, leading to violence against them. This has included physical attacks against Chinese and other Asians, hate speech blaming minorities for the spread of the virus, and calls by some political leaders for migrants to be denied access to medical services.

De Varenes emphasized that combatting COVID-19 requires “tackling its darker sides. Firm actions by States and all of us to safeguard the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized, including minorities, indigenous communities, and migrants, are urgent and necessary.”

Threat to refugees

With their limited access to clean water and limited sanitation, overcrowded refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps are ripe for the rampant spread of infectious diseases. This is doubly true with the highly transmittable coronavirus, where the preventative measures of self-quarantine and social distancing are impossible.

Governments are obligated under international human rights law and the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect refugees within their territorial boundaries from dangerous diseases like COVID-19. However, some countries are refusing to adjust their policies towards refugees, even when they compromise the chance of effective response. 

Countries have closed their courts and borders, given government entities unchecked power to detain people, and postponed planned elections.

Many experts have warned, as just one example, that the spread of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where Jewish World Watch works and which host nearly 1 million people, would be catastrophic. However, instead of doing whatever it can to protect this exceedingly vulnerable population, the government of Bangladesh is limiting the refugees’ ability to protect themselves by continuing to restrict mobile and internet communications.

With an ongoing telecommunications blackout in the camps for most of the day, Rohingya are prevented from accessing up-to-date information on how to slow the virus’ spread. Moreover, Rohingya are gripped with far in the face of rumors and misinformation that could be mitigated via access to accurate information. Rohingya are referring to COVID-19 as “death-virus” in the Rohingya language, believing the fatality rate to be much higher than it actually is. Lifting the restrictions would provide the Rohingya with access to accurate information and help curb unnecessary hysteria.

The rise of autocracy?

As The New York Times reports, governments around the world “are invoking executive powers and seizing virtual dictatorial authority with scant resistance.” They are also using the pandemic to crackdown on dissent and to remain in power.

We must be on the lookout for governments’ misuse of the health crisis as cover to seize and abuse new powers—often with few safeguards or sunset provisions in place to ensure that the powers are reined in once the pandemic-related threats subside. Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, warns, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.” 

In Hungary, for example, the parliament passed an emergency law empowering Prime Minister Victor Orban—a man with a thirst for dictatorship and a record of making anti-Semitic and xenophobic statements—to rule by decree, indefinitely. He now possesses sole discretion to end the state of emergency, which enables him to sidestep parliament and ignore existing laws. Chile has sent the military to public squares that had been occupied by impassioned anti-government protesters for months. Countries like South Korea and Singapore are employing complex surveillance systems to track their citizens’ whereabouts.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been granted unbridled power and control over resources. Jordan has adopted an emergency “defense law” to crack down on “rumors, fabrications and false news.” Other countries have closed their courts and borders, given government entities unchecked power to detain people, and postponed planned elections

Conflict has not stopped for COVID. As these crises continue to rage, the civilians who have borne the brunt of the atrocities are even more defenseless—essentially easy targets with nowhere to turn.

Even functioning democracies are being accused of misusing government power in the name of COVID-19 response. Britain’s coronavirus bill, which affords government ministries the power to detain and isolate people indefinitely, ban protests, and shut down ports and airports, has been widely criticized for infringing on citizens’ rights.

Similarly, in the United States, the Justice Department’s requests for sweeping new powers, including a plan to eliminate legal protections for asylum seekers and detain people indefinitely without trial, have been met with grave concern. The Trump administration has employed polarizing rhetoric, referring repeatedly to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and even “Kung Flu,” stoking the flames of hate. Asylum has completely shut down. 

If the Patriot Act enacted in response to 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that laws crafted in crisis can outlive the problems they were meant to address, sometimes with disastrous consequences. And so, we must be wary that COVID-19 response does not change the fabric of our societies in such a way and on such a scale that there will be no turning back once this crisis is over.

Regimes in conflict

Other governments are continuing deleterious practices that place vulnerable populations at even greater risk as COVID-19 continues to spread. The prime example of this is Syria, where the regime has been attacking its own people for nearly 10 years. The country’s health infrastructure has been completely decimated by relentless attacks on hospitals and medical facilities, amounting to war crimes. 

In Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold after the regime has regained control over most of the country, merciless Russian-backed bombardment beginning in last December has displaced more than 1 million civilians. Save the Children reports that fighting continues, despite COVID-19’s arrival in the country. There is great fear that President Assad’s regime will essentially allow the deadly virus to “finish the job,” wiping out as many Syrian civilians in the northwest as possible.

With only 153 ventilators and 148 ICU beds left in the entire northwest region, a sincere effort to save the Syrian people seems near to impossible. Especially those who have been huddling together out in the open, trapped between the ongoing destruction and a closed Turkish border. The International Crisis Group reports, “Many people fleeing clashes sleep in fields or under trees, and basic hygiene and social distancing practices are made impossible by the lack of running water or soap as well as cramped living spaces.

We must ensure that this pandemic does not provide an added weapon for regimes to continue to decimate their civilian populations, claiming lack of resources or ineffective health systems as the perpetrators, rather than their own failures to act.

Delivery of vital test kits has been delayed by weeks. Humanitarian workers fear that an outbreak of the disease in Idlib would both overwhelm the province’s medical facilities and make it impossible to care for victims of war.”

Similarly, in Yemen, over 24 million people already require humanitarian assistance in an ongoing war that has destroyed what was even before a very weak health system. Yemen is currently in the throes of a cholera epidemic. In response to COVID-19, de facto authorities in the capital city of Sanaa and the internationally recognized government in Aden have banned international flights and closed vital crossings. This has limited the number of aid workers on hand to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak, disrupted life-saving humanitarian operations, and exacerbated what has been dubbed the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. 

Conflict has not stopped for COVID. As these crises continue to rage, the civilians who have borne the brunt of the atrocities are even more defenseless—essentially easy targets with nowhere to turn. Whatever narrow avenues that might have existed for these populations to seek protection or resettle to safety have, for all intents and purposes, been completely foreclosed because of COVID-19.

We must ensure that this pandemic does not provide an added weapon for regimes to continue to decimate their civilian populations, claiming lack of resources or ineffective health systems as the perpetrators, rather than their own failures to act. 

The way forward

On March 25, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire, beseeching all parties to armed conflicts to shift their focus to confronting the health emergency rather than fighting each other. He urged warring parties to “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes.” Despite his appeals, many armed groups are refusing to adhere

Guterres offered a compelling response to this ongoing violence, which is capitalizing on the chaos and fear the pandemic has already triggered: “The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries and upend lives. The worst is yet to come. And so, we need to do everything possible to find the peace and unity our world so desperately needs to battle COVID-19.”

COVID-19 has leveled the playing field in many ways—its indiscriminate nature and rapid spread remind us all of our fragility, but also our shared humanity.

As the world continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, governments must respond in ways that defend human rights, particularly of the most defenseless, and they must recognize and reinforce our shared humanity. Governments must ensure that all populations—regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, or legal status—have equal access to essential medical services. The virus does not discriminate, and neither should our collective response.

According to Adama Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, “allowing [COVID-19] to tear apart the fabric of our societies is perhaps one of the most serious upheavals that the…pandemic is inflicting upon the world.”

We cannot stand idly by as the pandemic is used as a pretext to further persecute people around the world and, potentially, lay the foundation for future mass atrocities. Indeed, we have a duty to ring the alarm in the face of such abuse of power.

Here is what Jewish World Watch knows about the communities they serve:

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

According to our longtime partner in the DRC, there are 134 cases and 13 deaths as of April 2. When Congo announced its first case, all the details from the health ministry were wrong, raising concerns about the country’s ability to deal with a major health crisis on the heels of an Ebola epidemic. The DRC is already grappling with insufficient health institutions, armed conflict, a profound deficit of trust in public institutions, and a deeply compromised rule of law.

Although President Felix Tshisekedi convened an “extraordinary” meeting of his cabinet to discuss its response to coronavirus, our partners on the ground remain skeptical and concerned about the government’s ability to handle another health crisis. “The coronavirus situation is very frustrating,” shares one Congolese partner. “We are very worried! To be honest, I don’t think the country is prepared to deal with this right after Ebola!” A recent decision by the government to shut down much of the country as a preventative measure has added starvation to the list of our partner's fears. "I am even worried that hunger will kill more people than COVID-19 will. Many families are already affected spending days with no food because the borders are closed, the food production capacity is very low in addition to the alarming lack of infrastructure."


Now in its 10th year of war, Syria has seen an escalation in fighting in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib since last December, which has freshly displaced close to 1 million people. Civilian infrastructure, including most hospitals, has been decimated as a tactic of war. As of April 1, there are 10 confirmed cases and 2 deaths in Syria. Fears are mounting that an outbreak in this war-beleaguered country would be catastrophic.

This would be especially true for Syrians who have fled to overcrowded camps inside Syria’s borders. Our partner in Syria, which aids us in bringing supplies directly into the hands of doctors who remain working in war-torn Idlib, assures us that containers full of medical supplies are continuing to be sent to those doctors. The need for these supplies will be more pressing than ever should an outbreak occur.

Rohingya in Bangladesh

While the World Health Organization and JWW’s partners in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh report there have been no coronavirus cases yet among the 1 million refugees there, fear of an outbreak is very real. Preparedness efforts are underway, securing clean drinking water, basic hygiene and sanitation. There is also the daunting task of distributing masks and soap to so many vulnerable people. One of our partners on the ground is using the audio-visual learning program JWW funded as a tool to teach the 7,500 Rohingya children in its schools how to protect themselves and their families from infection.

Darfuris in Chad

So far, the Darfuri camps in Chad have no reported cases of coronavirus. “Operations are going on as normal right now,” reports our partner, even as an additional camp has been set up to deal with a new influx of 16,000 refugees, many of them women and children, as a result of recent clashes in Sudan’s West Darfur State. For Sudan as a whole, dealing with an outbreak would be a test of its fledgling transitional government, which is already facing a slew of challenges.

Uyghurs in China

It comes as no surprise that Beijing has been implementing even more draconian approaches to the containment of the Muslim Uyghur population in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang) than in the rest of the country. The 2 million or more Uyghurs currently in China’s “re-education camps”—who have been subjected to torture, “re-education” and deprived of their fundamental rights, contact with their families, or any legal recourse—are especially susceptible to contagious disease due to the overcrowded cells, lack of medical resources, and generally horrific conditions.

For Uyghurs remaining outside the camps, forced to live in a surveillance state, the harsh imposition of quarantine without warning has made it nearly impossible for many to procure food, resulting in widespread starvation and panic. Members of the local Uyghur diaspora in Los Angeles, with whom Jewish World Watch regularly partners, are more fearful than ever for their loved ones.

“It is heartbreaking not knowing how your family is impacted. We are very concerned about how coronavirus is affecting those back home,” one of them told JWW, asking not to be named to protect relatives in China. Continued advocacy efforts are crucial at this time to make sure that the world does not forget the persecuted Uyghurs.


Ann Strimov Durbin is a Pacific Council member, human rights attorney, and the Director of Advocacy and Grantmaking at Jewish World Watch.

This article was originally published by Jewish World Watch.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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