Human Rights Advocacy & COVID-19: Considerations for LGBTI Advocates

MPact is closely following developments regarding the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease, and particularly its impact on gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. MPact has provided short info notes with resources on a variety of topics, including: tips for LGBTI advocatessex and sexual healthstaying healthy under physical distancing and self-isolation; tips for health professionals serving LGBTI communities during COVID-19; and a joint statement with UNAIDS on discrimination in the age of COVID-19. Stay tuned for updates and check out all our resources on COVID-19 here.

By Stephen J. Leonelli, Senior Policy Advisor at MPact

In the last five months since the first case of coronavirus was identified, governments around the world have taken a variety of legal and policy approaches to contain the virus and prevent deaths from COVID-19. Simple analysis of these efforts shows that although everyone is susceptible to acquiring the virus, the severity of impact is disproportionately determined by long-standing social and structural inequalities. The COVID-19 crisis and governments’ responses to it reveal the compounding effects of persistent stigma, discrimination, exclusion, neglect, and other human rights abuses on health outcomes.

As pointed out by a recent press release from UNAIDS and MPact, in multiple countries around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are being targeted, blamed, abused, and incarcerated as policymakers and other influential stakeholders take measures to (allegedly) contain COVID-19:

  • In Belize, a young gay man living with HIV was arrested, humiliated, and beaten by police for breaking a new curfew rule. The man eventually died from his injuries;
  • Police in Uganda raided a shelter serving LGBT people and arrested 23, claiming that they were disobeying social distancing orders. The 19 who remain in custody have been denied bail;
  • Panama and Peru have instated policies that restrict movement based on sex. This has placed non-binary and trans people without legal gender recognition at heighted risk of discrimination and harassment;
  • Police in the Philippines publicly humiliated three LGBTI people who were out after curfew;
  • In Hungary, a newly imposed State of Emergency was used to propose a law that would prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender in identity documents;
  • After a beauty influencer on social media called for people in Morocco to set up fake profiles on gay dating apps to “catfish” men and expose their sexuality, gay and bisexual men are being outed, blackmailed, kicked out of home, and in some cases committing suicide, exposing the particular dangers for LGBTI people living with unaccepting families and using online networking platforms during the pandemic; and,
  • Religious and political leaders in Israel, Cayman Islands, Iraq, Ukraine, and the US and Mexico have spread misinformation blaming and scapegoating LGBTI people for the COVID-19 crisis.

These incidents are only some of the stories that have made the news. Many human rights abuses are unreported for fear of repercussions.

MPact has launched an Incident Assessment and Documentation Tool  for community-based organizations and individuals to track and document incidents of harassment, violence, and abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentation tool will be useful to community based organizations working with key populations and sexual rights.  Community based organizations and individuals can download the tool for their own uses and purposes, or they can report cases online directly to MPact. Learn more here: https://bit.ly/2YDYHwv

As the situation across the world continues to evolve and new measures are adopted to contain the virus, advocates for the human rights of LGBTI people need to remain vigilant and keep the following in mind:

1. Document and Report Human Rights Abuses 

Stigma, discrimination, violence, and hate speech targeting LGBTI people are on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, so document incidents as much as possible during this time.

Prior to the pandemic, stigma, discrimination, violence, and criminalization already posed formidable barriers to health care for LGBTI people. However, given that COVID-19 has now overloaded health systems in most countries, HIV and STI prevention, treatment and care may be interrupted or deprioritized for LGBTI people. Some governments, like the United States, have already moved to define abortion as non-essential health care and gender affirming surgeries as elective procedures. Any interruption, delay, or discontinuation of services should be medically based and data-driven. Communities have an important role to play in monitoring unfettered access to medical services.

During this time, interactions between the LGBTI community and law enforcement may increase, as policing and surveillance to enforce curfews and stay at home orders may lead to heightened risk of harassment or detention of LGBTI people. This is particularly true for those who are unemployed, homeless or partially housed, engaged in sex work, managing mental health issues and/or substance use. Additionally, LGBTI people staying at home with unaccepting family members or with abusive intimate partners may need to rely on law enforcement to resolve issues.

Any inappropriate, humiliating, or violent actions committed by police or other perpetrators should be documented. MPact has developed a new simple tracking tool for community-based organizations and individuals to document incidents of stigma, discrimination, violence, and inappropriate behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community based organizations and individuals can download the tool for their own uses and purposes, or they can report cases online directly to MPact. Learn more here: https://bit.ly/2YDYHwv

Depending on your country’s circumstances, incidents could be reported to National Human Rights Institutions, other human rights organizations, regional mechanisms, and/or UN mechanisms (including review of Sustainable Development Goals and human rights bodies such as Special Procedures, Treaty Bodies, or the Universal Periodic Review).

Even if you may be unclear about how, where, or when to address an incident, it is important for the sake of redress and follow-up to document as many details as possible and keep this information secure. Despite executive powers in many countries using the COVID-19 pandemic to opportunistically weaken institutions, communities are essential to holding governments accountable and insisting on the protection and promotion of human rights during the response.

2. Responses must target the virus, not people 

All around the world, governments are using draconian laws to criminalize COVID-19 transmission, exposure, and non-disclosure. But as the HIV Justice Worldwide Steering Committee lays out, communicable diseases are public health issues, not criminal issues.

Punitive approaches only undermine public health goals and have a devasting long-term impact on marginalized populations. Criminalization laws further stigmatize and scapegoat certain populations who are unable to physically distance and deter people from seeking health care. We need to closely monitor policing and policymaking efforts and understand the ways new policies and measures are affecting all populations. Civil society must unite together to shine a light on politically motivated (or even unintentional) consequences of these measures.

The use of health information in policing is also a source of concern. For example, in parts of Canada, police will be able to access a database with COVID-19 status information for up to six months following the end of the State of Emergency. While efforts to “contact trace” can serve public health aims, the combination of increased surveillance and policing and the criminalization of COVID-19 could potentially lead to increased human rights violations, particularly among marginalized and already criminalized populations.

Vecinas Feministas por la Justicia Sexual y Reproductiva en América Latina and RESURJ are currently conducting a survey about punitive and criminalizing measures that are being put in place for “containment efforts” to create a feminist impact analysis. Please consider submitting inputs to this survey to contribute information about the experience in your country. 

3. Center the experiences of marginalized and vulnerable LGBTI people 

Inequalities are exacerbated by COVID-19. There are numerous ways that COVID-19 is impacting diverse segments of LGBTI communities differently:

  • LGBTI people living with HIV who have not established an undetectable viral load are at heightened risk for severe health conditions from COVID-19. Stay at home orders create even more barriers for accessing HIV treatment and medication. Additionally, food insecurity as a result of loss of employment may cause disruption to adherence to treatment for LGBTI people living with HIV;
  • Many other underlying health conditions, from diabetes to asthma, are caused by structural factors such as systemic racism and sexism, homophobia and transphobia. This impacts LGBTI racial and ethnic minorities and increases vulnerability to COVID-19;
  • Transgender people who are receiving gender affirming care, including hormone therapies, many be unable to access treatment due to stay at home orders and thus suffer physical and mental health consequences;
  • Increasing nationalism and xenophobia place LGBTI migrants and racial and ethnic minorities at particular risk for exclusion and violence;
  • The ability to self-isolate and/or work from home is a privilege that many LGBTI people do not have. Sex workers and people working in informal economies are facing severe economic impacts from COVID-19. Food insecurity is on the rise among low-income and unemployed LGBTI people;
  • LGBTI people in prisons, detention centers, and other closed settings are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 transmission and may lack access to adequate medical treatment;
  • LGBTI people who are homeless or partially housed and those who are managing mental health issues and/or substance use may be particularly vulnerable to acquiring COVID-19;
  • Other HIV and STI prevention services and commodities, including condoms and lubricants, may be unavailable to LGBTI people due to the closure of community-based or clinic-based services, increasing the risk of negative health outcomes.

Activists should prioritize the leadership of LGBTI people with multiple, intersecting identities and center the lived experiences of marginalized and vulnerable LGBTI people, who are the most impacted by the pandemic. The differences across LGBTI people’s experiences with COVID-19 must be recognized and adequately addressed. Solidarity at this time is essential. We need to listen critically, fight each other’s battles, and protect each other.

4. Reference international human rights law 

Due to fear and panic, many measures enacted by governments during this time can cause unintended human rights violations. Other measures may also be politically driven, restrictive, punitive, and biased. In both cases, it is essential to remind all governments that any newly enacted measures must be necessary (effective and evidence-informed), proportionate, time-bound, non-arbitrary (non-discriminatory), and according to law (reviewable by a court).

When embarking on efforts to monitor and watchdog your country’s policy responses, it is essential to consider the full range of rights. This includes economic, social, and cultural rights and civil and political rights. These rights are inalienable, universal, interdependent, and indivisible, and they are relevant to the full spectrum of life for LGBTI people, as described in the Yogyakarta Principles and YP+10.

The International Center for Non-for-profit Law and partners have created the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, which monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms including freedom of assembly and other human rights. FairTrials is also specifically monitoring how criminal justice systems around the world are being affected by emergency responses to COVID-19.

5. Think Long-Term

In the words of writer Arundhati Roy, the COVID-19 pandemic is serving as an “x-ray” on countries, exposing the “bare bones” and vast inequalities in every country. Take the time to deeply consider the ways that the pre-pandemic legal and policy environment created and emboldened the inequalities so clearly disproportionately afflicting our communities during the pandemic. While governments are facing pressure to respond immediately to the short-term challenge of containing COVID-19, advocates need to think about the long-term. Our advocacy must envision a new future with better laws, policies, and practices that will create an enabling environment for us all to move forward after we make it through this period.

Some questions for advocates to consider during this time:

  • What human rights barriers are causing inequity in the response, and how?
  • What has the crisis revealed in the way that public services are delivered and inequalities that impede access to them?
  • Which emergency responses and measures were in fact necessary even prior to the crisis, but are only now being enacted or treated as essential?
  • How can we ensure LGBTI people are not left behind in government-led social protection schemes and poverty reduction initiatives at national, regional and global levels?
  • How can we safeguard against the erosion of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of LGBTI people?
  • Did policymakers meaningfully consult LGBTI communities and others most impacted, and has this caused inefficiencies or challenges?
  • How can we more intentionally and consistently apply an economic lens to our international activism, in both the human rights and HIV spaces?
  • How would an intersectional analysis, and solutions grounded on this type of analysis, move community issues forward?
  • What can we learn from this crisis to strengthen our advocacy and evolve the frameworks that inform it?

LGBTI advocates and communities impacted by HIV are accustomed to thinking structurally about social determinants of health and well-being. We must deliver a powerful reminder to governments that we all need to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis better prepared and better positioned to protect and defend the rights of all marginalized communities.

Resources

With thanks to the reviewers:
Angel Fabian, MPact
Elie Ballan, Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality
George Ayala, MPact
Greg Tartaglione, MPact
Johnny Tohme, MPact
Midnight Poonkasetwattana, APCOM
Mohan Sundararaj, MPact
Nadia Rafif, MPact