‘Tightening their stranglehold’: COVID-19 crackdown in MENA

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified risks for the most vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), according to a new report by Amnesty International.

Already existing inequalities and discrimination have left some people – including prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities – disproportionately affected by the pandemic, said the report by the human rights watchdog published on Wednesday.

In an example of institutionalised discrimination, Israeli authorities did not provide COVID-19 vaccinations to five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip when Israel’s vaccination drive began in December 2020.

“This move flagrantly violated Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under international law,” the report said.

The pandemic also worsened the situation for migrant workers tied to the “abusive” kafala sponsorship system in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rights watchdog said.

While some Gulf countries waived penalties for overstaying visas, many migrant workers also faced arbitrary dismissal from their jobs and were not paid for months.

Migrant workers were also at an increased risk of COVID-19 because of unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in camps or shelters.

In Jordan, thousands of migrant workers who lost their jobs rarely had access to social protection or alternative employment.

In Libya, minorities including the Tabus and Touaregs, who are from historically neglected regions, were denied adequate healthcare either because of inaccessible hospitals controlled by rival armed groups, or at times a lack of official documents, the report said.

In several countries, prisoners were at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to overcrowding, insanitary conditions and poor ventilation, the report found.

Overcrowding is common due to arbitrary detention practices, including prolonged pre-trial detention without effective appeal, as in Egypt, or administrative detention in Israel, the rights watchdog said.

Heba Morayef, regional director for MENA at Amnesty International called 2020 “a catastrophic year” for those already marginalised, as the pandemic made their situation “more precarious than ever”.

“The pandemic has amplified divisions, discrimination and inequalities that already exist in the region. Governments must prioritise the provision of adequate medical care in prisons and to alleviate overcrowding; all those who have been arbitrarily detained must be released,” Morayef said.

“It is crucial that governments in MENA ensure the healthcare they provide, including vaccines, is delivered without discrimination.”

Health workers unprotected

Health workers across the region suffered because of “willfully neglected health systems and pitiful social protection measures”, the report said.

In Egypt, at least nine health workers who expressed safety concerns or criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic were detained, pending investigations into “terrorism-related” charges and “spreading false news”.

Workers in Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia were not provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

“The courage shown by health workers who have put their lives on the line despite tremendous risks must be recognised. With slow vaccination efforts and the pandemic showing no sign of abating in MENA, it is crucial that authorities ensure health workers are adequately protected,” Morayef said.

A weaponised pandemic

Across the Gulf in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE authorities used the pandemic as a pretext to further suppress the right to freedom of expression, including by prosecuting individuals who posted critical comments on social media about government responses to the pandemic, the rights group found.

Authorities in Algeria, Jordan and Morocco declared a state of emergency and punished criticism with arrests or prosecutions.

In Morocco, a new health emergency law was used to prosecute human rights activists and citizen journalists for criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic, Amnesty said.

In Egypt and Iran, journalists and social media users faced harassment or arrest for critical comments and coverage. In Tunisia, activists faced criminal charges for their criticism of local authorities’ distribution of aid during the national lockdown.

In Israel, authorities resorted to raids, judicial harassment, and travel bans to intimidate peaceful critics – including Amnesty International’s campaigner Laith Abu Zeyad who continues to face a travel ban.

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