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COVID-19 – Possible Human Rights Crisis in Asia as Disparities Expected to Widen

The Asian Population and Development Association (APDA) is concerned by the societal socio-economic impact COVID-19 has created in the region, including the impact on employment and in unpaid care work, impact on health, including reproductive health services, and the impact of domestic violence during lockdowns. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

The Asian Population and Development Association (APDA) is concerned by the societal socio-economic impact COVID-19 has created in the region, including the impact on employment and in unpaid care work, impact on health, including reproductive health services, and the impact of domestic violence during lockdowns. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Sep 17 2020 (IPS) - The negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be felt long after the COVID-19 health risk is resolved, a high-level meeting under the auspices of the Asian Population and Development Association (APDA), heard.

Parliamentarians and civil society met today, Sept. 17, to discuss policy changes in Asia and the Pacific Region during COVID-19. They also reflected on policy changes since the Nairobi Summit on International Conference on Population Development (ICPD25) last year. This was the second-high level meeting held to discuss the ICPD25 conference this week. Earlier the Arab region met to discuss their Nairobi commitments.

Yoko Kamikawa, chair of the Japan Parliamentarians Federation for Population, in a recorded speech noted the pandemic had affected many people, expanding inequality. “Disparity may widen,” she said, and as a result, society may become more divided.

“We are very much concerned how much societal socio-economic impact COVID-19 has created, including the impact on employment and in unpaid care work, impact on health, including reproductive health services, and the impact of domestic violence during lockdowns.”

Davide De Beni, Health Economist for United Nations Population Fund’s Asia Pacific Regional Office, painted a bleak picture for the Asia region with only East Asia being the exception. This is largely because of China, which is expected to grow at 1.8 percent this year.

However, the overall contraction of 0.7 percent for the region this year hid the state of some countries like the Maldives and Thailand. Both these countries were less affected by the pandemic than by the international economic fallout.

The Maldives, which is dependent on tourism, saw its economy contract by 20.5 percent and Thailand by 8 percent. These figures, taken from the Asian Development Bank report from this week, “showed the path to recovery remained precarious and nobody knows what to expect,” De Beni said.

De Beni said government action taken was unprecedented and ranged from fiscal policies to mitigate tax relief and sector-specific support with central banks cutting rates. However, the “scale, the scope and the duration (of these measures) are often limited and also provide a limited stimulus to the economy”.

He warned that the social, economic and health dimension of the crisis and social protection is likely to become even more relevant in the emergent phase and the recovery phase of this crisis.

There were projections that in 2020 maternal mortality ratios could increase by between 17 and 43 percent – and from data collected in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, these projections are in line with the reality.

Family planning too was problematic with the unmet need for effective family planning expected to spike from between 21 to 40 percent.

This could amount to a human rights crisis – with mental health issues, gender-based violence and other harmful practises exacerbated.

Rose Hadley, consultant and expert, concentrated on the ICPD programme of action looking at Sri Lanka and Lao, and acknowledged that while things had changed significantly since the Nairobi summit, both countries had made commitments following the summit.

Sri Lanka had created strong policy statements for women and youth, even to the point of targeting certain occupations where women were particularly vulnerable. 

Fielding questions on concerns COVID-19 had created increased pressures for women and vulnerable groups – including increased suicides, early marriages, gender-based violence,

Hadley said that education and the primary health care system were both keys to finding resolutions to these challenges.

“Education is keeping girls out of early marriages. Promoting education is passing health information to children … Investigating in education is investing in health, and it is investing in economic development,”  Hadley said.

While she was not an expert on mental health – she believed it was time for the revival of the primary health care system. Primary health facilities could scene for mental health, help address gender-based violence and basic sexual reproductive health and rights.

Sri Lanka had during the COVID-19 period expanded a national hotline for women to a 24-hour service. This was critical for a lot of families stuck at home during lockdowns and where they were unable to go out or access services easily.

Meirinda Sebayang, chair of civil society organisation Jaringan Indonesia Positive, said COVID-19 meant that in her country maternal mortality was expected to rise as 28 percent of the health centres were not fully functioning. This also meant unmet needs for families.

One organisation tracked the statistics during the pandemic and found that there were a high number of gender-based violence cases, One survey also showed that 96 percent of respondents reported that the burden of household work was increasing. Many respondents cited a rise in household expenditure was creating stress.

Sebayang’s organisation surveyed about 1,000 respondents. The results indicated that people living with HIV in Indonesia were finding it challenging to access their medication.

Limited mobility during lockdowns meant an increase in sexual and gender-based violence at home and these might have “contributed to the unwanted pregnancies and also for unsafe abortions”.

Sebayang said it was essential to create protocols to deal with a pandemic. While civil society could reduce the impact of the disease, it required working together with government and service providers.

She pointed to several successes, like the use of smartphones for the treatment of tuberculosis patients.

“So, I think there are many, many things that we can do. We have to become more innovative and also have to have strong collaborations with the service providers, the government and also other civil society organisations and try to be inclusive … to find a way to win over this enemy.”

Dr. Osamu Kusumoto, Executive Director/Secretary-General of APDA, reminded the delegates that there was an advantage now.

“About 100 years ago (during the Spanish flu epidemic), there were no measures, but now we can discuss countermeasures.  We should think about work together,” he said, closing the meeting.

Meanwhile, earlier in this week Arab parliamentarians met to discuss the Nairobi commitments. While there had been a strong representation of the region at the summit, a report indicated some concern about the regions’ lack of commitment to several important challenges including maternal deaths among adolescent girls; unintended pregnancies; research and knowledge generation; capacity development of health providers and strengthening health care.

There was a call for youth-related commitments in the countries to be scaled up, especially support for youth associations and networks.

There was also a call for the countries to take more decisive action on female gender mutilation, child marriage, gender-based violence services and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against all women and girls.

Morocco acknowledged it had significant challenges ahead of it. Yet, it said it had achieved some progress in lowering the literacy rate, which was 90 percent in 2014 against 58 percent in 1994. Child mortality had dropped from 80 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 22.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2018, and maternal mortality decreased from 332 deaths in 1992 to 72.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017.

In addition, more women and youth were in positions of leadership.

Palestine, likewise, outlined key priorities including the adoption of it’s Family Protection Law, raise the marriageable age and the adoption of a cross-sectoral approach towards sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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