On April 7, Amnesty International (AI) issued its international annual global report on the various violations accorss the world, where it stressed that the pandemic lays bare systemic inequality in MENA and worldwide with refugees, migrants and prisoners severely impacted, adding that world leaders hampered recovery by undermining international cooperation.
The organisation clarified that throughout 2020; MENA governments ramped up assault on freedom of expression and in some cases punished health workers who spoke out.
In its report entitled “MENA: COVID-19 amplified inequalities and was used to further ramp up repression”, the organization highlighted how the global pandemic has exposed the terrible legacy of deliberately divisive and destructive policies that have perpetuated inequality, discrimination and oppression and paved the way for the devastation wrought by COVID-19 globally and within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In demonstrating the inequality in treating and providing the vaccine to the most vulnerable groups, the organization used the example of depriving the Palestinian citizens of the vaccinations by the occupying entity, saying “In a clear illustration of the extent of institutionalized discrimination in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli authorities failed to provide vaccinations to five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza when the vaccination drive began in December 2020. This move flagrantly violated Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under international law”.
Furthermore, prison officials across MENA failed to use the pandemic to address endemic overcrowding by releasing pre-trial detainees or those detained for offenses not recognized by international law. COVID-19 exacerbated already inadequate healthcare in unsanitary prisons. In Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia authorities withheld healthcare as punishment, leading to some deaths in Egypt, AI confirmed.
Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, stated that “Across MENA 2020 was a catastrophic year for prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities who are already marginalized and due to COVID-19 have found their situation more precarious than ever. The pandemic has amplified divisions, discrimination and inequalities that already exist in the region. Governments must prioritize the provision of adequate medical care in prisons and to alleviate overcrowding, all those who have been arbitrarily detained must be released,”
The organisation also pointed out to the weaponisation of the pandemic by some MENA leaders; “Across the Gulf states in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates authorities used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further supress the right to freedom of expression, including by prosecuting individuals, who posted comments on social media about government responses to the pandemic, for spreading “false news.”
According to the organisation, the pandemic also aggravated the already vulnerable situation of migrant workers across MENA who are bound by the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While some Gulf countries brought in measures to waive penalties for overstaying visas, many migrant workers also faced arbitrary dismissal from their jobs and were not paid for months. In Jordan, thousands of migrant workers who lost their jobs rarely had access to social protection or alternative employment.
And of course among the most vulnerable groups are prisoners who are overcrowded in tiny cells which lack ventilation and medical care, as AI stated that prison officials across MENA failed to use the pandemic to address endemic overcrowding by releasing pre-trial detainees or those detained for offenses not recognized by international law. COVID-19 exacerbated already inadequate healthcare in unsanitary prisons. In Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia authorities withheld healthcare as punishment, leading to some deaths in Egypt.