Amnesty International (AI) released a report on Wednesday revealing patterns of biased law enforcement in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, a finding reflective of the long-standing inequality Black Lives Matter protesters are marching against across the globe. AI studied the enforcement of coronavirus lockdowns in Western and Eastern Europe and found serious racial bias in curfew enforcement, stop-and-search, fines, use of force, and military deployment throughout the continent. At its core, Amnesty’s findings found that the COVID-19 pandemic – which already disproportionately has disproportionate impacts on Black and other communities of colour – has exacerbated “marginalization, stigmatization and violence” towards racial and ethnic minorities in 12 European countries.
In cities with a higher concentration of poor residents and people of colour, lockdowns were enforced more strongly and often with violence, discrimination, or other measures consistent with human rights violations. In Bulgaria and Slovakia, Amnesty found cases of militarized quarantines in 10 Roma settlements, as well as planes being used to “disinfect” communities with outbreaks and the use of drone surveillance to monitor residents and take temperatures. Amnesty International does not consider the military an appropriate method of enforcing public health measures, particularly when existing police officers are already deployed. Mandatory quarantines in Bulgaria cut off approximately 50,000 Roma residents from the rest of the country, leading to severe food shortages.
Police violence has also increased in recent months. Stop-and-search in the UK increased by 22% between March and April and by nearly one-third for Black people. Unlawful uses of force, and racist and homophobic language used by law enforcement officials – a lot of it related to lockdown enforcement – were verified by Amnesty International in 15 French cities. Longer curfews were imposed in areas of France with higher concentrations of Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic populations, even though “respect for lockdown measures” remained relatively similar across the board. In Seine-Saint-Denis, one of Paris’s poorest surrounding areas, fines for lockdown violations were three times higher than in the rest of France. Districts of Nice with higher populations of people of colour faced longer curfews than other areas of the city.
Another key finding in the Amnesty report refers to refugees, people seeking asylum, and migrants living in confined or shared housing and camps in Germany, Greece, Cyprus and Serbia. Many of these communities have been targeted with selective, strict quarantines enforced by the military, and some have seen forced evictions. Moreover, people experiencing homelessness have found themselves being disproportionally fined for lockdown violations despite not being able to comply with public health regulations. These populations, as well as those in prisons, are at high risk of infection.
Governments must do more to shelter those without permanent housing and provide safe and hygienic living conditions. Amy Braunschweiger of Human Rights Watch reiterated this point in an interview, noting, “From the human rights perspective, it’s about making sure governments are doing everything they can to uphold and protect the right to health, including access to health services for everyone.” Braunschweiger went on to cite those with underlying medical conditions, people with disabilities, the elderly, women, incarcerated populations, individuals in refugee detention centres, and health workers as people whose governments must provide them with additional support and protection during the pandemic.
Systemic racism and xenophobia have produced differential and deleterious outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Marco Perolini, Western Europe researcher for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera: “Police violence and concerns about institutional racism are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and coercive enforcement of the resulting lockdowns have exposed just how prevalent they are.” Now more than ever, local and national governments who wish to enforce public health lockdowns must commit to serious structural changes in law enforcement – such as divestment, more rigorous hiring policies, and eliminating immunity – to address racism and bias. Careful steps must be taken to ensure communities are not unduly targeted due to race, national origin, or income if they are asked to social distance. Finally, governments must do more to protect vulnerable populations in implementing emergency housing policies, providing testing and medical care availability, manufacturing and distributing protective equipment for front-line workers, and creating resources and financial support.