A woman wearing a face mask stands on a street in Jakarta on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

BANGKOK/JAKARTA – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, together with 35 civil-society organizations, is gravely concerned over the lack of a human-rights focus in the current response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic by the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

We call upon ASEAN member states to emplace human rights and dignity as the core principles in addressing the pandemic, specifically by ensuring that any public health measures are taken in alignment with international human-rights law and standards to ensure accountability and transparency in the handling of the situation. 

It is alarming that many ASEAN member states have yet to adopt a clear communications strategy to inform the public on the situation, three months after the Covid-19 outbreak. We have observed with a measure of alarm that ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos and the Philippines, have delayed or limited the release of information, in order to preserve their image. 

Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore are actively using repressive measures such as anti-fake-news laws to conduct misinformation, although this ultimately failed to quell public fear or doubt. This high-handed approach risks public health and welfare, particularly for those with limited access to information and education. It mutes people’s legitimate expressions of doubt and queries on the actual situation in their country and inspires more speculation and misinformation on the Covid-19 situation in-country.

In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo initially encouraged international and local travel by providing incentives for local tourism, while later admitting that the government intentionally hid information related to the areas that are contacted with Covid-19 amid fear of public uproar.

A similar lack of transparency is also documented in the Philippines. Both the governments of Singapore and Myanmar have expressed the intention to impose the anti-fake-news provisions in their laws to control the release of information. In Thailand, amid public concern over the actual number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, the authorities implied that presenting false information online related to the epidemic could be considered an offense under the Computer Crime Act.

More worryingly, no cases have yet been reported from Laos and Myanmar, raising serious concerns about lack of testing or reporting, and consequent lack of preparedness.  

As several countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia have tightened border controls and imposed forms of lockdowns, we are increasingly concerned that governments may use excessive force, militarization, or other abuses of power in implementing these measures. This becomes particularly concerning as uniformed forces are deployed without adequate training and due oversight when implementing these heightened control measures and the fact that most of ASEAN member states have authoritarian or partial-democracy governments. 

For example, in the Philippines on March 15, on the first day of a quarantine imposed in Metro Manila, several individuals reported corruption and intimidation by the police. The expansion to an “enhanced community quarantine” level throughout Luzon also poses concern as access to transportation, food security, and essential health-care facilities will be heavily restricted. 

Meanwhile, the government of Indonesia deployed its National Intelligence Agency to help monitor the situation, instead of relying on medical experts. Without an independent body to conduct monitoring and coordination of and among governmental bodies, potential violations and abuses of human rights, including the right to access to health care, right to freedom of movement, right to personal security, right to privacy, and right to non-penalization for lack of documentation, is high.

We are further concerned with the lack of preparedness and the inadequacy of health-care systems and facilities in the region to address the Covid-19 situation. 

Despite governments’ insistence that their health protocols have met World Health Organization standards, sufficient access to testing and treatment as well as protection equipment is often only available in major hospitals in major cities in the region, without realistic solutions provided for the rest. This situation threatens health-care and social workers, who are at the frontline of the battle, as they are left vulnerable with a high risk of contamination due to the lack of protection protocols and safety equipment.

We would also like to highlight how the pandemic response further reinforces existing inequalities faced by vulnerable populations, particularly informal and migrant workers, as well as rural, elderly, indigenous, LGBTIQ, people with disabilities and refugee communities. 

Refugees and other underground populations face unique vulnerabilities linked to risks posed by engaging authorities. Mitigating these risks will be critical to stemming Covid-19 spread. Meanwhile, women and girls are experiencing challenges as the burden to conduct unpaid care work for their family members, especially the sick, increases.

Further, incidents of domestic and intimate partner violence could well increase during strict quarantines while services and facilities that aim at addressing domestic and gender-based violence are disrupted because of Covid-19 response procedures.

About 70% of ASEAN’s workforce is in the informal sector, including part-time workers, and those in the “gig” economy. Many are daily wage earners and/or members of marginalized communities. These workers will have their livelihoods severely affected by pandemic-response measures.

States must provide a social protection net that mitigates the impact on all of those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic without exception and without discrimination. They should also implement measures such as the universal work from home and covered-leave policy, as well as contingency and compensation during the quarantine. We condemn businesses that still demand that staff report physically to work despite known risks or that impose unpaid leave for several months.

We would like to reiterate the importance of human rights and dignity as core principles in combating this global pandemic. We note with disappointment that these principles are not underscored in the commitment of ASEAN health sectors to review and assess the enhanced cooperation in regional preparedness, response strategies, and countermeasures by utilizing the ASEAN Plus Three Health Cooperation.

It is further disappointing to see that the disparate display of measures by the individual ASEAN member states has shown a lack of a coherent and coordinated region-wide approach to managing the impact of the pandemic.  

We demand that ASEAN member states:

– Respect human rights, fundamental freedoms, and human dignity as well as abide by international human-rights standards and principles when implementing measures to address the Covid-19 pandemic;

– Provide free and high-quality tests, treatment, and care to all people affected by the pandemic, including marginalized groups and undocumented populations;

– Provide temporary and safe shelter during enforced quarantines for the homeless and other vulnerable communities;

– Facilitate regular and transparent access to accurate, timely, and comprehensive information to the public regarding the disease, including the risk of transmission, prevention, and governmental efforts to address the situation;

– Ensure that all employers, including public institutions and private companies and businesses, provide adequate compensation to all employees affected by the pandemic;

– Generate a timely response accessible to all people, including those who have limited access to health-care facilities;

– Provide holistic measures, through law, policy, and practice, to uphold and ensure workers’ and migrant workers’ rights, welfare, safety and security, regardless of legal status, in response to the Covid-19 threat;

– Encourage all national human-rights institutions to monitor the impact their state’s measures together with civil society;

– Ensure that full access to social and protection mechanisms, including to justice for women and girls, does not cease during this time of quarantine.

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Cornelius Hanung is the East Asia and ASEAN program officer at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a part of the Solidarity for ASEAN Peoples’ Advocacy (SAPA) coalition. He is a human-rights activist from Indonesia.