In efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and balance the fallout of the crisis, governments are forced to find new ways to keep populations safe and reduce further transmission of the virus. This includes offsetting the economic consequences of reducing world business and avoiding as much strain on essential services as possible. Social distancing measures have come into effect, with many countries placing restrictions on public gatherings and prompting isolation lock-downs. However, this has spurred some criticism due to the extremity of these restrictions, namely their effect on human rights and civil liberties.
An example of this is in Uzbekistan, Al Jazeera reports that people taken into quarantine wards must temporarily give away their cellphones and other similar transmitting devices once they enter, as these small items could carry the virus. However, there is worry that another purpose of doing so is to prevent the leaking of photographs and information of the conditions of these quarantine wards, which have been called a “disaster” by local photographer, Timur Karpov. A law has also been implemented in Uzbekistan that punishes the dissemination of “fake news” with three years in prison. Without a proper legal definition of what this entails, there is danger that this law could be used on a broader scale than that of its intended purpose, raising concerns about the sanctity of free speech. This is also evident in Sri Lanka, where police are arresting those who criticise official response to the pandemic, or who share “fake” or “malicious” messages, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Kenya, a strict curfew from the hours of 7:00 P.M. to 5:00 A.M. has been implemented, with authorities enforcing compliance through violent means. Human Rights Watch reports that in Mombasa, police started beating people queuing up for a ferry two hours before the curfew began. Local news showed footage of police beating journalists who were covering the situation in Mombasa. The Kenyan President has since apologised for this abuse of power, according to France 24.
In other countries, there are also concerns around breaches of privacy occurring to find those infected by the virus. In Canada, officers are using cell phone data to track those who are not following orders to self-isolate, reports the Canadian Press. Reporters were told that geo-location is “absolutely at our disposal” to track a suspect. Mobile carriers in China, Taiwan and South Korea are also using similar location information to surreptitiously trace contacts of those who test positive for the virus rather than getting that information through official public channels, according to Reuters.
All of these exemplify a tension that is playing out in the global political sphere currently – where public health concerns outweigh the protections of civil liberties and privacy rights. There are natural caveats in the laws of countries that protect these rights that account for emergencies such as these. However, the situation is ever-changing as the virus spreads and governments implement more draconian practices that go beyond the range of what these caveats cover.
National governments and the international community need to take heed that civil liberties and human rights should not be infringed upon in a way from which there is no return. While these measures may be justified by some because of the global pandemic, we must consider what such human rights abuses may entail in the future. Otherwise, there could be ongoing threats to peace in what is already a troubled situation.