Defending Human Rights During COVID-19

This content is confirmed accurate as of March 20, 2020.

The world looks different each and every day when we wake up. We’re all aware of these drastic changes, because we’re living through them together: school closings, the shuttering of local businesses and restaurants, cancelled gatherings and, of course, the mounting statistics of reported cases and deaths caused by COVID-19.

In the past few days, we have seen the number of confirmed cases spread rapidly to nearly every country AJWS serves in the developing world. While the numbers are still several weeks behind what we’re seeing in the U.S., many of these countries lack a sophisticated medical infrastructure to ensure that people will receive the medical care they need and—like the U.S.—may struggle to keep up with the need for testing. They also suffer from widespread poverty, and a lack of governmental support and basic resources to weather the challenges they may endure.

In this pandemic, AJWS is continuing our steadfast support of the brave advocates, activists and social change organizations we work with across the globe. We are making every planned grant and reassuring our grantee partners that they will not lose funding from AJWS. As we always have, we are listening to them as they determine their needs in a rapidly changing landscape. We understand that they know what will work best for them and their communities.

From our decades of work, we know that the most vulnerable communities across the world will face the most serious impacts of this pandemic, because at times of crisis, the human rights of oppressed and marginalized people are nearly always further violated. These are the communities we have always stood with, side by side: women, girls and LGBTQI+ people; indigenous and rural populations; refugees; religious and ethnic minorities; and those suffering from poverty and persecution.

We’ve spoken to many of our grantee organizations in the 19 countries where AJWS operates—and based on how crises have unfolded in the past, we know the potential impact that this pandemic will have on many of our partners and the vulnerable communities where they work. We wanted to share that list with you. As you read this, our grantees are bracing for:

  • Discrimination based on nationality, refugee status, sexuality and gender identity—leading to personal attacks and even the rushed adopting of discriminatory laws.
  • Ineffective health systems and unequal access to health care. Pre-existing barriers to women and girls, refugees, sex workers and others seeking healthcare may be exacerbated.
  • An utter lack of government transparency and information about the virus, preventing marginalized populations from educating themselves and keeping themselves safe.
  • A loss of the most basic needs: housing, food, healthcare and income.
  • A complete lack of safety net for the families of those placed in quarantine, who may lose their livelihoods and homes when they are no longer able to work.
  • Sweeping roll-backs of human rights protections, as governments take severe steps to limit the virus’ spread. These setbacks are likely to persist long into the future.

In many countries where AJWS works, our grantees are already experiencing rising human rights violations emerging in response to the pandemic—and they are beginning to mobilize to fight back:

  • In Bangladesh, refugees are terrified of possible outbreaks amidst rumors of cases in two towns that straddle the refugee camps. Some partners are disseminating information about hygiene and other ways to prevent the virus’ spread—a monumental task in these incredibly overcrowded camps.
  • In Kenya, sex worker and LGBTQI+ communities are facing blame and discrimination from far-right groups who believe they caused the virus.
  • In Liberia, even as the government—acting upon the lessons learned from the Ebola crisis—is taking the COVID-19 threat very seriously, parliament members are capitalizing on this moment of public vulnerability to try to pass anti-LGBTQI+ laws.
  • In Mexico, grantees are postponing seminars, workshops and events—and we expect many will be profoundly affected by the incoming economic crisis the country is soon to experience.

AJWS will not waver for a second in our support of our grantee partners and the communities that depend on them. We will keep you updated as our partners build their response plans—and as COVID-19 takes root in their countries. This will not be an easy task for any of our 487 partners; but with your support, we know they will work day and night to keep their communities as safe as possible.

Sam Wolthuis is the Director of Humanitarian Response & International Operations at American Jewish World Service.