Authorities told to protect health workers, disadvantaged sections of society

Kathmandu, March 26

As cases of COVID-19 escalate in South Asia, one of the world’s poorest and most populous regions, Amnesty International has called on the authorities to put human rights at the heart of their responses and intensify efforts to protect marginalised and vulnerable groups at higher risk, including daily wage earners, people displaced by conflict, health workers and prisoners.

“As the number of COVID-19 cases in South Asia soars, the region’s leaders must pay special attention to the most vulnerable and marginalised.

They need to protect workers for whom staying at home means losing their livelihoods, people who lost their homes in conflicts, prisoners squeezed into cells, and valiant doctors and nurses, who have never had the resources they need and are now putting their own health at risk to save others,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at AI.

The COVID-19 crisis in South Asian countries including Nepal has been exacerbated by failure of the concerned authorities to provide accessible, accurate and evidence-based information about the virus.

Some senior government officials in different countries in the region have, in recent weeks, either played down the crisis, suppressed information about its true scale or in the most damaging cases provided false information about its effect, it warned.

People living in rural area, where literacy rate is low and access to health care severely limited, are particularly affected due to lack of reliable information about the coronavirus.

“States have a responsibility to provide information about COVID-19 that is accurate and evidence-based, that reaches people in language they understand through medium they can easily access. There must be a concerted effort to counter misinformation about the virus that could harm people and to protect marginalised communities from stigmatisation,” said Patnaik.

Daily wage earners have also been badly affected. Majority of workers in South Asia are involved in informal economy, often depending on daily wages.

According to International Labour Organisation, informal workers accounts for 80 per cent of total employment in South Asia. They include street vendors, sanitation workers, drivers, construction workers, cleaners, tea plantation workers, fishermen, porters, cooks and domestic workers. Most of them are internal migrant workers and live far away from their families.

“No one should be forced to make pernicious choice between starvation and infection. South Asia’s economy depends on daily toil of workers, who are forced to seek their living in insecure and often inadequate working conditions.

States must protect their livelihoods during this crisis.

This is a global pandemic and it needs a global solution,” said Patnaik.

There are few healthcare workers with few resources. Health workers in Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan are already raising concerns about lack of personal protective equipment.

Burden on health workers and other workers at health facilities, who are exposed to risk, endure psychological stress and fatigue, is set to rise along with the number of people infected by COVID-19. They also have to protect their families from exposure to the virus while helping patients recover from the disease.

“Frontline health workers are the heroes we depend on in this crisis. The least they can expect is to be given protective equipment they need. States have obligation to ensure they are protected by providing appropriate training and psychosocial support for them and their families,” said Patnaik.

On prisoners, the AI said South Asia’s prisons were notoriously overcrowded. In Nepal, the occupancy rate is more than 150 per cent, with more than three times as many prisoners as there is capacity in some prisons.

Under international human rights law and standard, concerned authorities must ensure that prisoners have prompt access to medical care and they enjoy the same standard available in community when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of people infected with COVID-19.

Some of South Asian countries including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have taken welcome steps towards releasing some prisoners, but these are yet to be implemented or applied consistently, according to the AI.