Civil Society Response to Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic impacts the human rights landscape and exacerbate existing human rights violations, making support for civil society particularly important during this unstable time. For this reason, UPR Info organized a series of Virtual Roundtables for civil society organizations and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to provide a platform for the exchange of information on the impact of the Covid19 crisis on human rights.

The Virtual Roundtable for English speaking organizations and NHRIs (held on 8th April 2020) was attended by more than 25 representatives from many different countries including, Uganda, United Kingdom, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, Peru and Switzerland; the French speaking Roundtable was mainly attended by representatives from Ivory Coast.

The discussions focused on two broad points:

  • The challenges posed by Covid_19 on human rights
  • The measures adopted to address these challenges

The Virtual Roundtables offered an opportunity to civil society representatives working on human rights in different countries and contexts to share concerns and good practices to face the emergency. Many topics have been discussed and this briefing will highlight some of the issues discussed during the informal conversation:

Violence Against Women

According to an analysis brief recently published by UN Woman, the number of girls and women subject to sexual and/or physical violence is likely to increase during this period. The security, health and economic worries heighten tensions which are exacerbated by the confined living conditions imposed by Governments to reduce the spread of Covid_19.

In Spain, certain pharmacies and shops have adhered to an initiative to ensure the safety of victims of gender-based violence and received instructions on how to provide support and report cases. While going to the pharmacy, women can alert the pharmacists about a domestic violence situation by using a code message. The pharmacists engaged in this initiative are instructed on how to provide support to the women and call and report the case to the police

Right to Education

Most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital technologies are increasingly being used to deliver lessons to children at home.

In Georgia, private schools are using online platforms such as Zoom, while public schools use State TV channels to run different classes and lessons that can be followed by children. The limit of using public broadcast is that there is no way to interact with the students but at least in this way children enrolled in public schools have access to the educational programmes.

In Ivory Coast, the government uses public radio and the television channels to broadcast lessons and courses.

From the Netherlands, one of the participants shared with the group how they have adapted their previous work to the current situation. This organization developed an educational package on statelessness for children and used it to raise awareness on the topic in schools in United Kingdom and the Netherlands. As the schools have been closed down, they created a network of teachers willing to integrate this educational package on statelessness in their programme. This initiative allowed the NGO to reach out to a wider public and led to develop an online platform that can be accessible from other countries beyond the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

An online platform called “Take Action”, which has been created for the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to promote human rights education at the local, national and international levels, can be a useful resource to connect human rights organizations, especially in this period.

Right to Water

The provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting health during the COVID-19 outbreak. Several participants to the Roundtable brought up the issue of access to water.

As many people are staying home and not receiving salaries or any income, they might also be confronted with the possibility that they may lose water to wash their hands or the electricity in their homes. Among the initiatives shared within the group, a UK based coalition of NGOs working in Africa has supported a campaign to request national and local governments not to disconnect water and to make it a public and free service. In Ghana, the government has recently announced that it would absorb the water bills for all Ghanaians for de next three months. The government of Zambia is also positively reacting to this Campaign, ‘there is a different level of engagement from different countries which is very encouraging’ one of the representatives declared. These initiatives aim at encouraging the governments to recognise the right to water also beyond the Covid_19 crisis.

In India, consultations were held with vulnerable groups on clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) with/ for persons with disabilities and sex workers to provide technical guidance to the government about alternative approaches to hygiene promotion. The consultations report was shared with the UN Country Team and the Government of India for integration in the India Voluntary National Report to the High-Level Political Forum in New York (in July 2020).

Access to Information

Telecommunication networks have never before been as vital as they are during the current crisis, where millions are being encouraged to stay at home. Concerns on access to information and to networks with other national and international organizations were raised during the informal discussions.

Several apps and online platforms were mentioned in the discussion as useful and secure tools to communicate. Among the messaging apps, Telegram and Signal have been identified as secure mobile and desktop messaging applications that enable users to text, audio, and video messages. For secure video conferencing platform, Skype Business, Blue Jeans and Zoom (when the meeting provides for a platform) have all been indicated as reliable resources to organize meetings.

Reducing Stigma and Discrimination

As in previous public health crises, people that contract the disease, and their families, often face discrimination and stigma. In Ivory Coast, for example, cases were reported about discrimination actions especially in workplaces.
Different civil society organizations have responded to this threat by organising a human rights campaign using caravans and mass media (radio and TV) to expand public awareness on the measures to use to reduce the spread of the virus while respecting human rights, especially for the more vulnerable groups.

In conclusion, it is evident that government measures to combat COVID-19 have profound implications for everybody’s fundamental rights. The responses to stop the virus particularly affect the rights of already vulnerable or at-risk people, such as people with disabilities, indigenous groups and children. This is why these responses to combat this pandemic need to apply a human rights-based approach by complying with the principles of participation, non-discrimination, accountability and empowerment.