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Human Rights and Compassion Must Guide Enforcement of COVID-19 Mitigation

President Uhuru Kenyatta leads the charge against Covid-19. He speaks to the nation fromHarambee House, Nairobi, March 14, 2020. Photo-State House

NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 6 2020 (IPS) - Covid-19 infections continue to rise, bringing normal life to a virtualstandstill and causing countries to shut themselves off from the rest of the world.

Increasingly, governments are turning to ever more stringent measures including curfews and lockdowns, with police and military being used to enforce those measures.

Perhaps necessary as the velocity of the virus has already infected nearly 1.2 million people and killed nearly 65,000 people worldwide, wreaking havoc to the health systems of the most advanced countries of the world.

Frontline health workers, are succumbing to the virus as they selflessly treat those under their care, upholding the Hippocratic Oath. Italy and Spain have been among the hardest hit, with more than 25,000 dead and more than 250,000 infected. In Italy, 73 doctors have died treating patients affected by the virus.

Health workers are the real heroes in the fight against the deadly new Corona Virus.

China’s ability to turn the coronavirus corner is a result of what has been described by WHOas “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” it says. “This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.”

But such effort will inevitably come at a cost, but should not at a cost to basic human rights and the rule of law.

For example in India, my home country, authorities have come under fire after videos surfaced on social media showing officers beating people on the streets to enforce the country’s 21-day coronavirus lockdown.

There is no justification for breaching human dignity and using corporal punishments to humiliate people.Scenes of such violence anywhere in the world, should deeply concern all who want to defeat this faceless enemy.

The way we respond to national challenges such as disease pandemics is an opportunity to hold up a mirror to ourselves as human beings and as societies.

Millions of people across the world are fearful of what the future holds.Those with jobs know they may very well lose them, while those without are already struggling to provide for their families in often desperate circumstances. Shops and businesses will close, transport will be interrupted and gradually vital supplies may be hard to come by.

For the poorest, coronavirus is an existential threat to their tenuous grip on survival.

So excessive use of force by police to enforce the curfew is counter-productive: it does not make people safer and increases the chances that people already struggling to meet basic needs will lash out in fear and frustration, could lead to social unrest.

The Ministry of Health in Kenya, is doing an excellent job in screening and isolating suspicious cases as well as stepping up measures for tracing and quarantining people. Kenya has imposed a curfew from 7pm to 5am and all international flights have been suspended.

These are sensible measures, given that Covid-19 is extremely infectious. People with no or only mild symptoms can spread the virus, unaware that they are even infected, and some epidemiological models suggest that a single source can lead to 400 infections within a month.

The curfew and perhaps lockdowns area painful but necessary measure that we must endure if we are to break the chain of transmission.

This is an all of society fight where every individual regardless of rank or station must observe the rules, of hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, physical distancing and quarantining themselves.

However, forcing crowds of people to huddle together is wrong and dangerous, even to the police themselves.The enforcement of the curfew in Mombasa on 20 March 2020 was an aberration. I commend President Kenyatta for his public apology.

It is better to educate people, inform them of the risks and urge them to go home – as one police officer was captured on video doing in Baringo County on the first night of the curfew. A lesson for countless law enforcement agencies.

To ‘flatten the curve’ in Kenya, we must target resources at those who are most vulnerable, enabling them to take measures that will protect their families and communities – and to help those with the fewest coping mechanisms to ride out the crisis.

Kenya has an opportunity here to be a beacon for the world by modelling wise measures, sanely implemented. We the United Nations family are determined to do everything possible to support Kenya’s drive to flatten the COVID 19 curve.

There is much we still don’t know about the Covid-19 virus, but we do know that defeating it depends on the realization that we’re all in this together, regardless of social status, rank or station. The UN Secretary General, Mr Antonio Guterres has said, “ We are in this together – and we will get through this, together”.

Such cohesiveness can only be built and maintained through communication, cooperation and compassion, underpinned by human rights and dignity.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya.

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