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This article is written by Aditya Singh from Symbiosis Law School, Noida. This article deals with the challenges faced by the marginalized groups of the society, which has further increased due to the pandemic induced lockdown. The article tries to cover the global situation of these groups, the steps taken by the respective governments to ease the situation and what further can be done for the benefit and relief of the marginalized groups.

Introduction

Being similar to many other infectious diseases, COVID-19 presents an elevated danger for the people residing in close vicinity of one another. It adversely impacts the elderly and people with underlying diseases such as heart conditions, hypertension, diabetes, and severe respiratory diseases. 80% of the individuals who died in China as a consequence of COVID-19 were over 60 years of age. The home health care system is a vital component of an urgent response toward pandemic influenza. Approximately 85 percent of the 1.5 million workers who provide in-home care to about 7.6 million customers are low-wage workers, a major part of which are women, and rest are the members of racial and ethnic minority groups spread in a disproportionate manner.

Important work goes beyond health services, while certain individuals have been allowed to transfer their work to their home, millions of employees have occupations that cannot be performed from home, which include custodial and orderly personnel in medical institutions, teachers and child care workers, supermarket and retail store workers, warehouse workers, manufacturing and agricultural workers, and restaurant workers have to majorly function without adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). These individuals have to leave their homes to support others in maintaining a semblance of normalcy and stability, with a considerable threat to themselves and their family members.

Background

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on March 11, 2020, that the breakout of the viral disease COVID-19 – originally detected in Wuhan, China in December of 2019, has reached the stage of a worldwide pandemic. Expressing concern regarding “the alarming rates of transmission and seriousness,” the WHO called on authorities to take immediate and aggressive steps to curb the virus outbreak.

Since mid-March, an estimated 26.5 million Americans have been seeking unemployment compensation, as the novel coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown steps to curb the outbreak had a crippling effect on the economy. By 26 March, due to COVID-19, more than 180 nations, territories, and zones had imposed restrictions on travel, including limitations on the admission of nationals from other nations. The closing of national boundaries by many nations, and perhaps even the tentative restrictions on migration of the labourers from South Korea to Argentina, complement these steps.

Even under normal conditions, people in detention centres, jails, and immigration processing facilities still do not have access to sufficient health care, even in economically developed countries. Recent deaths of immigrants, who were under the custody of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were a result of the substandard healthcare provided to them. Custodial populations often include the elderly and those suffering from severe chronic conditions which imply that they are at an increased risk of getting infected from the COVID-19 disease. For example, the public healthcare system in the Dominican Republic is already in complete chaos, as there are only 250 ICU beds throughout the nation having a population of over 10 million people. Hence, it has severely restricted the country’s ability to respond to COVID-19. Marginalized groups that already undergo prejudice such as Haitian descent Dominicans, Haitian migrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, and sex workers, may not be able to access essential healthcare services.

A panel of United Nations human rights experts stated that the declarations of emergency focused on curbing the COVID-19 outbreak must never be exploited as a justification for targeting specific groups, minority communities, or individual citizens. This should not perform as a cover for oppressive action underneath the false pretence of health protection, and therefore, should not be used to silence the opposition. As under the International Agreement on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which was adopted by most nations, everybody has a right to attain the maximum achievable standard of physical health and mental wellbeing. Governments are required to take appropriate measures with respect to preventing, treating, and monitoring the epidemic, infectious diseases, endemic, occupational diseases, and others.

Marginalized groups affected by the pandemic

Marginalized groups include all those segregated from everyday social, economic, educational, and cultural life. Definitions of marginalized populations include, but are not restricted to, people disadvantaged on the basis of race, sexual orientation, age, gender, physical and mental capacity, dialect, and on immigration or citizenship status. Marginalization arises because of the unequal relationship of power among the social classes.

Migrants, Refugees and Internally displaced persons

The world’s current estimate is that, in 2019, there were roughly 272 million international migrants throughout the world, representing 3.5 percent of the world’s total population. By the end of the year 2018, almost 70.8 million people had been displaced by force worldwide due to persecution, war abuse, or abuses of human rights. The world’s population of wrongfully displaced people had risen by 2.3 million in 2018. The pandemic would worsen the prevailing vulnerabilities for several of the world’s 272 million international migrants. Travel restrictions, sealed borders, and living conditions within such camps will only increase the risks for migrants. People who are displaced internally and across borders are especially vulnerable, and the majority of the 25.9 million refugees worldwide and 41.3 million internally displaced people are residing in the developing nations which are only beginning to be impacted by the pandemic. In Bangladesh, after surviving genocide in Burma, over 850 thousand Rohingya refugees live in over-congested camps at Cox’s Bazaar. They do not even have the option to socially distance themselves from others because of close quarters in the camp. Furthermore, information regarding hygiene and access to adequate sanitation facilities is severely limited. These camps only have the limited ability for providing intensive care, therefore, in case of a COVID-19 outbreak, it will spread very quickly.

Lockdown in many countries is delaying both the process of migration and the assistance given to asylum seekers. Several important migrant support programs have been simply forced to close until further notification, due to a ban on social meetings, as is the situation with the migrant kitchen working at the Colombian border which regularly helps feed approximately 4,500 Venezuelan migrants daily and provides basic health care services.

As the infection rate of the virus continues to develop, it might impact the safety of the people in such countries hosting vast numbers of displaced people, such as Lebanon, Bangladesh, Syria, or Jordan. But COVID-19 could have a long-term impact on the development and future of the inclusion and social solidarity of the migrants. Sentiments of mistrust and cases of prejudice compounded by false news, misleading information, and the politicization of the topic have already begun. Such migrants are most often uninsured and may even be hesitant to attend healthcare centres for the fear of getting reported as there are no satisfactory firewalls for sharing of information with the immigration department and the law enforcement agencies. The relocation of migrants is even further far-fetched because of the restrictions on mobility and concerns about the exposure of refugees to COVID-19, which have forced the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to indefinitely suspend movement of the refugees regarding resettlement.

Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has indicated clearly as to how much society relies on the essential workers. According to official statistics, Rickshaw drivers, nomadic products hawkers, housekeepers, daily labourers as well as other informal workers, are indeed the backbone of the Indian economy, accounting for about 85 percent of all jobs. Most of them purchase food with the income that they earn every day and generally don’t have any savings to depend on.

Internationally, women represent 70 percent of frontline employees in the healthcare and social area, such as nurses, midwives, cleaning staff, and laundry staff. Several other challenges are being faced by women informal workers due to their increased care and household obligations.

The crisis affects various groups of workers in different ways. The essential service providers are at risk, for example, garbage collectors offer essential public services and face major risks associated with handling hazardous products and may even lose their daily income during the period when the government has ordered for a work stoppage and is encouraging the individuals to stay home. Those who manufacture local market goods and services or are contract workers for domestic and international supply chains are facing a new type of isolation because for weeks and even months such workers have not had any orders or sales. Frontline care staff is most susceptible to this pandemic, as their profession requires them to interact with others because of which they may come in direct contact with the virus. These workers do not have adequate protection against the virus and from their employers who require that either they work more for no extra pay or they stay away and earn nothing. Suppliers of Essential Goods, such as casual roadside vendors, shopkeepers, and market carriers of goods and services are also necessary as they offer products and services at reasonable prices. However, maintaining physical distance for such workers is almost impossible in congested public areas, but being helpless, they are forced to work as the government lockdowns pose a threat to their survival.

In April itself, the COVID-19 related deaths of approximately 27 healthcare professionals were reported in the United States, 106 deaths were recorded in the UK and 180 in Russia, along with a hundred thousands cases of infections. Within the UK, 33 percent of all the employees (10.6 million) are considered as key workers and in spite of the government plan, with respect to paying 80 percent of unpaid wages to the furloughed staff, several low-wage workers including cleaning staff, seasonal workers and student employees may be unable to get its benefits. In New York City, a total of 120 Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees have died as a result of COVID-19 and around 4,000 were tested to be positive. Similarly, 28 bus drivers in London died as a result of COVID-19, and Belly Mujinga, a UK railway worker was reported to be dead after being spat over by a passenger who was alleged to have COVID-19. Over the last two months, Approximately 36 million workers have applied for unemployment and are withdrawing from work, as even an unsafe job is disqualifying workers from getting unemployment insurance coverage.

According, to the report of the International Labor Organization, in which it has estimated that the lockdown steps adopted worldwide have impacted 2·7 billion people which amounts to 81 percent of the global workforce. 61% of workers are in the informal sector, 90% of which are in low-income and middle-income nations, and social security policies are mostly insufficient, and the majority of them not having access to healthcare and economic security.

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LGBT+

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on a lot of unpleasant truths that we have to face in our society. The virus has impacted disproportionately across different communities, including LGBTQ people. Compelling LGBTQ teens and young adults to go back and live with their families during lockdown where they may not even be welcomed, putting susceptible individuals at risk of homelessness, job insecurity, and hampering development on possible legal improvements which could give LGBTQ people additional rights. As of April 3, 2020, more than 220 pride events worldwide have been cancelled or postponed to a later date. About one-fifth of LGBT+ individuals throughout the U.S. claimed that their financial circumstances were “far worse off” than a year earlier as compared with the general population among which only 11 per cent had seen their finances worsen, and although nearly one-third of gay and trans individuals had reported their working hours reduced, on the other hand, just 22 per cent of the general population registered a decrease in their working hours.

In accordance with xenophobia and bigotry linked to the pandemic, LGBT Asians are facing increased prejudice. More than 3 million LGBTQ+ elderly people in the United States that were already less likely to utilize health and wellbeing services such as community centres, daily meal facilities and several other initiatives, as compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, intended to ensure their safety and well-being because of their fear being discriminated and harassed. Medical associations have cautioned that certain LGBTQ community members might be “especially vulnerable” to the effects of this disease. Factors responsible for higher risk include a greater possibility of individuals having HIV and cancer in the LGBTQ population meaning that several persons could be having weakened immune systems, making them more susceptible to getting infected with COVID-19. Discrimination in the healthcare sector in America, including denial of treatment, hostile attitudes, and failure to understand by workers and practitioners, is likely to make LGBTQs more unwilling to seek medical assistance.

Local government representatives in Uganda are already exploiting COVID-19 as a shield for discrimination against vulnerable groups, which also includes the LGBTQI+ group in the region. In times of crisis, these groups often are stigmatized by authoritarian leaders in the eyes of the general public. When people associate a disease, such as COVID-19, prejudice and discrimination can very easily develop. A local mayor and his security agencies have recently raided a facility for LGBT youth, arresting 23 people on baseless charges that they were deliberately transmitting the virus.

Prisoners

Several citizens have not even been accused of a felony but they are still locked up in the U.S. prisons merely because they cannot manage to pay the set bail in their case. Older men and women are perhaps the fastest-growing category in American prisons, and prison authorities are still struggling to provide them with the necessary medical care.

Prisoners in Iran, including Evin prison in Tehran and cities of Euromieh and Rasht, have apparently tested positive for the coronavirus. Family members of 25 inmates, taken into custody for peaceful activism, in an open letter seeking for their temporary release in the midst of the outbreak and absence of adequate healthcare services for the prison. Apparently, for the purposes of medical concerns related to the COVID-19 outbreak, Iranian judges have released approximately 85,000 prisoners for the Persian New Year (Nowruz) temporarily.

On March 12, in the background of the prevailing circumstances, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has evidently pardoned 901 prisoners on humanitarian grounds. In Italy, inmates in over 40 prisons have staged protests against congested facilities over the risk of getting infected, and against prohibitions on family visits and monitored release during the coronavirus disease outbreak. In response to the situation, government authorities have permitted the use of email and Skype for communication between prisoners and their family members and also regarding educational purposes for the very first time. They also have proposed a scheme to release and put the prisoners under house arrest who are left with less than 18 months of the sentence.

Sex Workers

Everywhere across the world, sex workers are undergoing unprecedented hardships, complete income loss, and an increased number of cases with respect to discrimination and abuse. Considering the self-isolation of sex workers and their customers, sex workers are left helpless, highly marginalized, and incapable of providing for themselves and their family members. Sex workers’ institutions from all countries report a denial of access to national social security schemes, excluding such workers from emergency social security programs, especially where sex work is illegal.

There is almost no financial assistance currently available for the 73,000 sex workers in Britain, of which about 32,000 are working in London. Sex workers in the UK can demand compensation of equal to 80 per cent of their income but only if they have already registered themselves as being self-employed. While sex work in India is not illegal, several other sex work-supporting activities including the brothels are considered as criminal offences. A study carried out by UNAids in 2016 estimated that India had 657,800 sex workers then, with that figure possibly to be even higher presently. Several of the customers of such workers earn on a daily basis, but the customers have disappeared now due to the unexpected shutdown of the country.

Many sex workers now claim that brothels are expelling them, with cities imposing curfews, while some are being compelled to work regardless of the circumstances. The total closure of bars, clubs, and red-light zones also has dramatically reduced income-generating prospects for such workers, and perhaps even sex workers who work from home or make home visits have also reported a decline in revenue. What is even worse, is that the remaining clients are using the excuse of the pandemic to negotiate down the prices or are demanding services with a higher risk for the same sum of money, for instance, sex without a condom.

Farmers

Employees in the agricultural sector, such as farmers and their helpers, are seen as essential entities. They could continue to function while following appropriate guidelines related to social distancing. Farmers might as well modify their business to go online, which will also help the revenues to grow. Theiss Farms Market in Spring, Texas, for example, has made the shift of selling goods online. The method of operation of the farm is that it sends the consumers a weekly newsletter describing the new produce, regarding which the consumers can reply with their requests by email or by text. Farmers or appointed sellers then arrange for the shipping of orders or pick-up requests.

As per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Agriculture, with its associated sectors included, is India’s biggest means of livelihood. 70% of its rural population is still highly dependent on agriculture for their income and livelihood, with 82% of them being small-scale and marginal farmers. A major area of concern of the farming sector during lockdown is that farmers are returning to their homes because of the fear of Coronavirus outbreak. Agricultural production and supply are also dependent on human resource availability, farm-related factors of production, and the free trade of the agricultural goods, and all of these are prohibited due to lockdown during this period. Such challenges would lead to reduced agricultural growth and higher inflation in food prices. Agricultural productivity will also decline eventually this year if it continues for more duration.

Supply and demand have two ways of affecting farmers. First, they must satisfy consumer needs. Second, they have their own demands regarding raw materials, equipment and other necessities. Farmers would have to adapt and persist in both these areas during the COVID-19 outbreak. The short-lived decline in manufacturing and distribution would be handled much efficiently by better and bigger farms, but small ones will have to suffer.

Suggestions

  • Government agencies hosting migrants and refugees will have to make sure that their approach towards COVID-19 involves steps for prevention, detection, treatment and recovery, with special attention towards initiatives to reduce over-congestion in detention facilities and centres, improve hygiene and access to medical services, and switch to duration-bound quarantine and segregation, only when required.
  • Government departments with jurisdiction over individuals detained in prisons, correctional facilities, and immigrant processing centres should consider reducing their numbers by effectively monitoring or discharging early the category of detainees bearing low-risk.
  • Similar releases should also be taken into consideration for senior citizens and individuals with prevailing medical conditions, after evaluating as to whether the detention camps have the ability to protect and safeguard their overall health, and with respect to this, several factors should also be taken into accounts such as the seriousness of the offence committed and the period remaining to be served.
  • Government officials will also have to guarantee that the financial constraints would not deter people from obtaining proper testing, medical care and treatment with respect to COVID-19. 
  • Across the United States, 28 million individuals do not even have health insurance, and almost one-third of the nation finds it difficult to even afford the treatment, even if they are covered by insurance. Sex workers should be given access to national social security programs, inclusive of income and employment support plans.
  • An effective wall between healthcare departments and immigration agencies to guarantee that the migrants and sex workers can be benefitted from the health care schemes.

Indian Perspective

The state may have a duty to safeguard people’s welfare and well-being, however, some of the measures have rendered hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers/workers out-of-job, homeless, and stuck due to closing down of transportation facilities. The total closure of state boundaries has also affected the availability of basic commodities, resulting in inflation and has raised concerns about the scarcity of goods. Hundreds of people living on the streets are in dire need of shelter. Police attempts to arrest individuals breaching regulations have apparently contributed to harassment against those in need. Authorities should understand that poverty, hunger and uncontrolled spread of infection would only worsen the issues and should guarantee that the most vulnerable are not burdened by the shortage of basic resources.

The national government declared on March 26, 2020, a relief scheme of 1.7 trillion rupees (US$ 22.5 billion) which included free meals and financial assistance to needy and disadvantaged communities, as well as medical insurance for healthcare employees, amongst other benefits. The government must ensure that those with higher risk, which includes the sanitation staff, regional health personnel (ASHA employees), initial child care workers (Anganwadi employees), and individuals like midday meals workers, are generally unfairly remunerated employees of the public sector and they are mostly at the frontlines during such crisis and should be given adequate safety gears, healthcare facilities and regular salaries.

The state would have to further undertake immediate measures to ensure the health and safety of stuck and distressed migrant employees. State and local governments all over the nation should urgently establish accommodation shelters and food kitchens for people who are desperately in need and should undertake steps to maintain social distancing. The government would have to reimburse the unpaid marginal workers irrespective of their jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 and should extend its range to include all those pushed out of employment. Due to the lockdown, marginalized workers would not be able to perform their jobs, which is why wages and salaries should be regularly granted to them throughout the crisis. Throughout the harvest period, agricultural communities suffered a major loss and the government should increase the procurement in order to help secure the agricultural revenue and save the harvest.

Conclusion

This vulnerability is extremely severe in detention centres such as jails, juvenile correctional facilities and migrant detention camps, and also the rehabilitation establishments for people with special needs and nursing homes for adult patients, where the infection will spread very quickly, particularly where there is still inadequate access to healthcare. States have a duty to provide healthcare services for those who are in custody which should be at least comparable to that accessible to the rest of the public and they must not deny equivalent access to appropriate, preventive, or curative medical care for detainees, which includes refugees or undocumented migrants. Refugees and immigrants living in detention facilities, and homeless families will also be at a higher risk due to their lack of adequate availability to proper water and sanitation facilities. Informal and undocumented workers are likely to slip through gaps and priority should be given for ensuring their health and safety.

After that pandemic is over, returning back to the existing state of affairs shouldn’t be allowed. It should ensure that essential workers are able to perform their jobs securely and that they do have proper medical care and paid medical leave to protect their wellbeing beyond such unprecedented pandemics. Essential employees are indeed crucial in nature and we are only securing the safety and welfare of each of us by helping them protect and maintain their jobs.


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