COVID-19 is a threat to all of us, but is an especially serious threat amid armed conflict
As delivered by Ms. Laetitia Courtois, Permanent Observer and Head of Delegation, ICRC New York
Thank you Madame Chair.
Over the last months of the COVID-19 pandemic we have learned who among us are the most vulnerable. The elderly and people with underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable, as are people deprived of their liberty, and those marginalized due to language barriers, lack of economic opportunities, access to health care, and access to education.
COVID-19 is indeed a threat to all of us. But it is an especially serious threat for people in areas where armed conflict and other situations has ravaged health and public services. The pandemic and its secondary socio-economic effects has not only worsened humanitarian situation in many contexts but has also exposed pre-existing protection problems and the consequences suffered when international law, including international humanitarian law is not properly respected.
Today I will focus on four areas where we call for a greater collective approach from governments, international organizations and civil society: health care, detention, humanitarian assistance, and family unity.
First, to address COVID-19 we must ensure that health care is accessible and safe, without discrimination. For instance, refugees and other vulnerable foreign nationals can experience limited or no access to health care and social services due to their legal status, discrimination, lack of documentation, financial resources and language barriers.
States are entitled to – and must – take measures to manage public health risks. But any measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19, including restrictions of movement and emergency border measures, must comply with applicable international law. Under international human rights law, they must be lawful, necessary and proportionate to the objective of protecting public health and must be non-discriminatory.
Second, we need greater focus on places of detention and other areas where people are deprived of liberty.
Detainees are at particular risk of infection in places of detention because physical distancing is challenging, and hygiene measures may be inadequate. Where possible, facilities should be decongested to avoid over-crowding. Clean water and sanitation should be made available. In immigration detention facilities, camps, camp-like settings and urban settlements, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is also great due to similar enclosed settings.
Third, we must ensure humanitarian assistance reaches the most marginalized and at-risk.
We have seen that in armed conflict situations, the pandemic is at least as much an economic crisis as it is a health crisis. Where humanitarian assistance is ever more essential, public health measures need to comply with international law, and, importantly for us, need to contain exemptions for humanitarian organizations to be able to reach the most vulnerable.
Let me now turn to other groups who face differing and specific risks. Women and girls in particular face heightened risks of sexual and gender-based violence. Women, children and people with disabilities are often disadvantaged in access to health care or excluded from channels where information on outbreaks is provided. They may also be exposed to an increased risk of infection, especially in care facilities with inadequate infection control measures.
For children in particular, COVID-19 measures can increase existing vulnerabilities. Movement restrictions, family separations due to quarantines, interruption of schools – typically protective spaces for children – can increase risks to abuse, exploitation and violence.
We must address the circumstances of marginalized and at-risk groups in our response and identify and respond to their needs.
Finally, in taking measures related to COVID-19, the right to family life and protecting family unity and links are essential. Measures, including movement restrictions, medical isolation and quarantine, should be adjusted to help preserve family unity. In addition, authorities should take all possible measures to protect persons from going missing and ensure the dignity of the dead, including by registering persons admitted to health or quarantine facilities, proper documentation of transfers and death.