COVID-19 Human Rights Crisis on Top of Health and Economic impacts

Statement posted on Twitter by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the conditions faced by migrants in Central America. April 23, 2020.

April 29, 2020 – COVID-19 started as a public health emergency but has evolved into something much more complicated, raising serious concerns about human rights across the Americas. Measures to prevent the spread of the virus fall within states’ emergency powers, which are generally used for public disturbances and not for pandemics or economic crises. The challenge at hand is to address the pandemic as well as respond to human rights violations and an economy weakened by the need to distance from one another.


At the state level, human rights violations are taking place through oppressive government practices as well as a lack of response to the needs brought on by the crisis. While no country was prepared to address an emergency of this magnitude, responses have exposed and magnified a host of underlying problems, including social inequities, discriminatory policies and weak rule of law.  Many governments have taken the pandemic as license to indulge authoritarian tendencies that both undermine basic human rights and fail to keep communities safe. 


International organizations such as the U.N. have expressed their concern for the well-being of migrants and have insisted that countries make do of their obligations to respond to these groups. Global civil society networks and organizations have also stood in solidarity with migrants by holding states accountable to their responsibilities and advocating for the protection of vulnerable groups. Below we address some of the multiple and complex violations of people’s rights:


  • Right to Health

The lack of access to health care for migrant and refugee women and industrial workers is a cause for concern. Deportations of people from the United States and Mexico continue, despite the increase in cases of people with symptoms and confirmed patients of COVID-19. Deportations and returns are one of the most critical sources of contagion in Mexico and northern Central America. Guatemala has asked the United States to suspend deportations to prevent further contagion. Also alarming is the spread of the virus within prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, a problem that is often addressed by deporting people, rather than caring for their health. 


  • Right to Food 

The 53 million people living in poverty in Mexico are even more vulnerable during this crisis, especially indigenous populations. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Latin America’s economic future could lead to widespread food insecurity.


  • Right to Housing

The loss of income for people who work in the informal sector is already impacting countries like Honduras, where families have been left destitute. The crisis in this country is expected to be aggravated by the decrease in remittances from immigrants living in the United States.


  • Right to Education

“Study at home,” the education plan in Mexico, has failed to consider [lack of] access to the internet or television by students living in rural areas. Similar situations are observed in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Disparities in education- a driver of economic inequality-was already a serious problem in the region and can be expected to worsen.


  • Right to Work 

Government Labor Departments have a wide range of responses, as documented in this OAS report.  In Mexico, 28 million people are at risk of becoming unemployed, while many work without adequate protection.  In the United States, essential workers, many of whom are immigrants, are continuing to work without the safety measures needed to protect their health and may find themselves under the threat of deportation. 


  • Right to Personal Liberties 

In El Salvador there have been more than 700 illegal arrests of people who violated stay-at-home orders. The Bukele administration announced its intention to disregard the ruling from the Constitutional Chamber that ordered the government to suspend these arrests.


  • Rights to Personal Integrity

In Mexico, health care workers are being attacked by people who consider them a threat to their health. In  Honduras, people are also being denounced by security officials for being out after curfew.


  • Right to Privacy

In El Salvador, the government issued a decree authorizing health authorities to enter homes to evaluate health measures.  But in practice, members of the armed forces are trespassing homes, without any presence of health professionals.


  • Right to Information

Mexico and El Salvador have violated people’s right to information, relying on “emergency” measures, or simply by shutting down offices that provide critical information to the public, making it much more difficult to assess the measures taken by the government to address the pandemic.


  • Right to life

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has authorized the use of lethal force by the police and army after an increase in homicides over the past weekend.


Human Rights violations in the Americas did not start with the Coronavirus pandemic.  But the handling of the crisis serves as a potent reminder of how fragile the systems are to protect  rights across the region. Rights violations cannot be excused as a necessary consequence of pandemic response.  Just the opposite–the growing human rights crisis lays bare the structural problems that require a coordinated and vigorous response from civil society networks, the media and human rights defenders.

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