Some of the world’s most marginalized and defenseless communities have fallen victim to violence and other rights abuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the UN agency dedicated to tackling the AIDS virus to urge Governments to protect the most vulnerable, particularly key populations at higher risk of HIV.
Interruptions of HIV services, harassment, abuse, arrests, deaths and a failure to respect human rights in the early responses to the pandemic have underscored how trust has been undermined, individuals harmed, and public health responses set back, according to a new UNAIDS report launched on Thursday.
“It is a myth that there can be a trade-off between human rights and public health”, said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Human rights are not only intrinsic, but they are also the very means by which Governments can successfully beat a pandemic”.
The report, Rights in a pandemic – Lockdowns, rights and lessons from HIV in the early response to COVID-19, draws attention to the experiences of some of the most marginalized communities between February until mid-May.
It flags violations that include instances of police using rubber bullets, tear gas and whips to enforce physical distancing.
Moreover, people have been arrested, detained and fined for not wearing masks – with those unable to pay the fines left in jail.
The report also highlights the impact of movement restrictions, such as doctors being arrested and detained for travelling to and from health facilities and spotlights pregnant women dying because of austere restrictions preventing them from reaching health-care services – some while walking to hospital.
One account details a motorcycle taxi-driver being beaten to death by police after taking a woman in labour to hospital during curfew hours.
Government action needed
Safety during lockdowns has been a major concern, particularly for people most affected by HIV, including sex workers, whose lost income were largely not eligible for financial support.
In many countries, gender-based violence has increased by 40–70 per cent. And under gendered lockdown policies, transgender people have been harassed and arrested for leaving their home on the “wrong day”.
As UNAIDS has repeatedly stated, violence against key populations and women and girls increases vulnerability to HIV.
Rights in a pandemic calls on Governments to take proactive measures to ensure that people, particularly those in vulnerable groups, can access HIV treatment and prevention services; designate and support essential workers, including community-led organizations; and implement measures to prevent and address gender-based violence.
The report revealed that in 10 of the 16 countries reviewed, HIV prevention and treatment services were disrupted, with some registering reductions in medicine collections of up to 20 per cent in various areas.
We have a commitment to stand up for the most vulnerable even in the tough environment COVID-19 has put us in -- UN rights chief
There were multiple reports of people living with HIV not having enough antiretroviral medicine for a lockdown of more than 60 days as well as others of people having abandoned their HIV treatment due to a lack of food.
‘Stand up’ for vulnerable
UNAIDS stressed that the HIV pandemic must not be forgotten during this crisis.
“COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a very long time”, said Ms Byanyima. “We have a commitment to stand up for the most vulnerable even in the tough environment COVID-19 has put us in”.
The report builds on Rights in the time of COVID-19, released by UNAIDS in March, which urged countries to take a human rights approach in responding to COVID-19 – in line with best practices from 40 years of responding to HIV.
The UNAIDS chief concluded by flagging that Rights in a pandemic will be used to convene Governments, communities and partners to “open a dialogue and to find a way forward to reform bad laws, policies and practices and to protect human rights”.