Postcards from a Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all. But the virus – and the measures implemented to contain it – impact everybody differently and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you cannot access running water, for example, it’s impossible to follow handwashing guidelines. If you live in a refugee camp or informal settlement, social distancing isn’t feasible.
People from across the Amnesty International movement have shared their experiences of the outbreak so far. Below you can read stories from 17 countries including Spain, Nepal, Brazil, Nigeria, Philippines and Canada.
They show how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, and why governments need to tailor their responses to specific situations.
But they also show how much we have in common. We all want to live safe, healthy lives and know that our families are okay. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect. And we are all finding different strategies to cope with these strange and frightening times; and discovering moments of hope.
WE SHOULD REMEMBER THAT IT’S OKAY TO SLOW DOWN, IN ORDER TO BE EVEN MORE POWERFUL IN THE FUTURE.Sixtine, Amnesty activist from Belgium
Jaime, Hong Kong
Jaime is Amnesty International’s Hong Kong Youth Leader
Right now, I’m feeling uncertain. We were one of the first places affected by the outbreak in late January, and although we’ve generally managed to contain the virus, we’ve just been hit by a second wave of new cases.
Hong Kong is not technically on lockdown, but both citizen-led and government-imposed safety precautions have been in place since early January. We were able to act swiftly because this isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with a large-scale virus outbreak – memories of SARS in 2003 are still etched deeply in the minds of Hong Kongers, and we understood early on the importance of solidarity and taking collective responsibility during a public health crisis.
This solidarity and collective responsibility is also what gives me hope. During the initial food and health supply shortages, volunteer groups would deliver care packages to the elderly. Everyone would wear masks to avoid being infected, and to avoid infecting others. People would carry around extra masks to give to those who were unable to obtain them. Many sprung to action and started mass-producing hand sanitiser in their own homes, to hand out to their communities. Everyone has shown immense support to our healthcare workers.
In times like these, it’s become apparent that we need to think beyond ourselves and work together to tackle this crisis of public health, misinformation, and inequality.
Bob in Jersey 2013
Bob is an Amnesty member who lives in Jersey. In 2013 he was awarded an MBE for his role in helping escaped Russian prisoners during the Nazi occupation.
I am approaching a birthday with two noughts at the end. I live in Jersey and you may know that these island were occupied by German forces for just short of five YEARS of repression, shortages and virtual starvation in the siege winter of 1944/45. There was no fuel ration, no gas for cooking, no electricity at all for four months.
There were certain parallels between those times and today. What stood out was how personalities were sharpened. One soon learned that there are more positive people than negative ones; and this applied equally amongst us who were occupied and amongst our German controllers.
People who had always had a generous, giving element became quite saintly. Those who had always had a mean, selfish streak in their characters became absolute bastards.
My name is Robert and I am the director of Amnesty Ghana. Ghana is currently in partial lockdown. My tips to stay optimistic and calm are to stay home and stay safe; take advantage of any free time to learn and read books; spend some time away from screens and play games with the people you live with; pay attention to your diet and exercise frequently if you can; and meditate.
Many people in Ghana are concerned about the conduct of the police and military officers who are enforcing the directive. Ghana has adopted a law within this period which I believe is problematic to human rights. The Imposition of Restrictions Law seeks to give this and every other president the power to curtail some freedoms in our constitution, on certain grounds which I believe could be abused if not checked.
Also, the way in which the government is handling the poor, the homeless and the destitute in this period is troubling. It was clear that these people were not considered in making major decisions.
E-ling Chiu is the Director of Amnesty International Taiwan
Since Taiwan is excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO), and because of the tragic experience of SARS, we’ve paid close attention to the development of the pandemic since the beginning.
Right now everyone has to wear a mask on public transportation. All hospitals and care centers have stopped visits by friends or family members.
Taiwan has managed to contain the virus successfully so far. But I am worried about how the government is cooperating on surveillance with telecom companies. People’s location data is being collected, and there’s no information about how long this will go on.
Also, the government has no clear policy to protect homeless people, illegal migrants or asylum seekers so far.
Taiwan is not in lockdown so I don’t have to isolate myself. But my friends do have experiences of quarantine when they came back to Taiwan from abroad. Some of them are still in foreign countries.
Sometimes I wonder if I have been infected, even though I didn’t go abroad or have a fever. There is more and more distrust growing among our society.
I’m also worried that Taiwanese’ anger towards the WHO will affect their view towards other INGOs.
I’m trying to do yoga, to take deep breaths and exhale slowly. I try to do something good for others, care for my friends or colleagues in other countries. I send my best regards from Taiwan.
My name is Raul Santiago and I’m a human rights activist and journalist. I’m 31 years old and I live in the Complexo do Alemão favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro.
The coronavirus pandemic is very difficult here. Many people live in precarious housing with few rooms and lots of people. Families who are extremely poor have nothing to eat when they have to socially isolate, and are having to depend on food donations.
Basic tips from the World Health Organization, such as washing your hands a few times a day, are just not possible for many people here. Solidarity is needed to overcome inequality and the virus.
The recent pandemic is exposing the inequalities in my country and others. Water is a human right, but it is still lacking here. Basic sanitation is the minimum that people should have to live with dignity, but open sewage is still a reality.
Most people who live where I live, if subjected to total quarantine today, would have no drinking water and nothing to eat – they’d start to go hungry in less than a week.
We are lacking the minimum resources to be able to contain the spread of this virus, and this is a because our most basic human rights are not guaranteed. We will need all possible help.
I’m part of a group of activists which has created a crisis office here in Complexo do Alemão. We are trying to do awareness and prevention work, as well as asking for donations to help the extremely poor people who live here.
Every day we receive requests for help – for food, water and simple cleaning products. It is desperate. We are doing our best with the minimum and without resources from the government.
Athabasca Chippewan First Nation
It’s nearly impossible to isolate in the communities where it is common for three generations and 12 people to live in a two-bedroom house. These houses were built cheaply by the government and are often not designed for northern and remote climates: mould, water damage, and a collapsing structure are common and can contribute to pre-existing medical conditions.
Canada is a vast country with abundant fresh water; it is a country where people have safe, potable water direct from the tap, and rigorous water-safety guidelines. Except in many Indigenous communities. Currently, there are about 100 communities that cannot drink the water from their taps, and even more must buy gallons of water and bring them into the remote communities. In many areas, people have been also told that the tap water is unsafe for washing or cleaning.
Indigenous people live under a complex, bureaucratic healthcare regime. It is so underfunded that the Canadian Human Rights tribunal has declared the system discriminatory against Indigenous people and has ordered the Canadian government to fix the problem. Most communities are without doctors and nurses, hospitals, or even emergency medical equipment, and people have to take flights to get treatment at medical hubs.
Spring is arriving in Northern Canada, and with it, seasonal flooding into communities that were intentionally located by governments on waste land. My very deep fear right now is for the people who experience this crisis every year with little to no government emergency response. What will happen this year as the coronavirus moves into these remote, underserviced and precarious communities?
Kakuma Camp, Kenya
In Kakuma, a vast refugee camp in Kenya’s north western Turkana County, overcrowding and water shortages limit the possibilities for fighting the spread of the virus. Humanitarian agencies have had to suspend or reduce their services and basic necessities are not getting in. Refugees are confined to the camp, which means they cannot work, and there is a strict curfew in place between 7pm and 5am. Abubakar, from Burundi, has been living in Kakuma for seven years. He says: “The big issue is the fear because I don’t think we have the medical attention to fight the virus here in the refugee camp. Once it attacks us, I think it will hit us hard. When they talk about washing hands – we are in a dry area, we don’t even have enough water to wash our clothes. They talk about sanitizers – I have not seen sanitizers in the camp. They talk about masks – I don’t think there is any agency in the refugee camp that is distributing masks.”
© Michael Christopher Brown, Magnum Photos
Gerrard is a musician who was born in South Kivu in the DRC. He has lived in Kakuma since 2011.
I came to know about coronavirus through social media. I am very worried about it breaking out here. We are limited in our lifestyle, and the advice on how to be safe from COVID-19 – for us in Kakuma that’s going to be tricky to follow.
Most people are used to being in groups, queuing at food distribution centres and for water. Refugee youth stick together, share food, go to youth centres. Telling people to avoid crowds just does not make sense to them.
The government needs to provide food, sanitizer and security. Yes we are receiving food, but it’s not enough, given that we’ll be home for at least the next two months. We are supposed to be receiving two months’ food delivery at once to minimize movement, but that’s not happening yet.
There is no permanent water tap and some places here get water deliveries just twice a week.
We need security because the lockdown and curfew will cause problems. If you break the curfew and end up in jail, you pay a lot of money to get out – I’ve heard of people paying 50 USD. There’s famously a lot of corruption in the Kenyan police and I’m worried about how the curfew will affect that.
On top of all this there’s the limitation of salaries. No one is earning money, and we need money to fight the virus. You can’t tell people to save money for sanitizers when they can’t afford food and water.
Mohamed, 26, is from Burundi and has lived in Kakuma since 2005. He is studying social work and is the manager of Exile Key Films, a production company based in Kakuma.
There needs to be better awareness. At the moment it still feels like a myth or a rumour here.
We really need testing kits. Maybe the virus is already flowing through the camp. We have people who have been suspected to be positive, and they are in the hospitals, but what about where they were living, their friends and families? There needs to be overall testing. If they do this soon it will be easier to curb and will minimize the cost.
It’s still early stages here, but if they wait for people to start dying to start testing, we will not be able to curb it. The whole world is in grief right now, and other countries have it worse than us. If we are infected who is going to help us? Governments have to deal with their own people.
Once we know who is positive and who is not we can start planning the way forward.
Refugees are people like any other people. They have a right to know what’s going on in the world. They have a right to be protected from diseases.
Sixtine is an Amnesty Belgium activist
The painful individualism and social inequality of the Belgium I live in becomes very clear when everything is shut down.
Every crisis is a potential risk for human rights. As quick as lightning some authoritarian leaders have used COVID-19 as an excuse to violate human rights. We must continue monitoring this – aside from taking part in physical actions, we can raise awareness and activism using digital platforms and social media.
This experience has made me think a lot about how we can better empower the Amnesty movement online. We’ve been using a lot of online meeting tools, which has been an opportunity to discuss digital inclusiveness, and ways Amnesty can be resilient in the shift to a digital world.
But it is soothing to remember that this is all temporary. We are still allowed to do things that bring us joy. And I’m sure that Amnesty is completely able to face the human rights challenges caused by COVID-19.
I give all the Amnesty family a giant hug, courage and sparkling sweetness. We should remember that it’s okay to slow down, in order to be even more powerful in the future.
I THINK WE ARE GOING TO COME OUT OF THIS WITH A RENEWED APPRECIATION FOR LIFE, THE PEOPLE WE LOVE, AND FOR OUR FREEDOM.Jane, UK
Boniswa at an Amnesty event
Boniswa, South Africa
Boniswa is the chairperson of Amnesty International Vaal Chapter
The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt me and my community (the Vaal township in Sebokeng Zone 7 near Johannesburg) in ways that will alter lives long after the government shutdown.
The South African education system has more than enough challenges and I am concerned that the school closures are going to further exacerbate the situation. Public schools in the townships lack resources and infrastructure. Many parents in the townships are illiterate themselves and are unable to help children with homework.
We live in a gravely unequal society and the COVID-19 crisis has further widened this gap. Most people in my community are contract workers, part-time, self-employed or unemployed and barely getting by. The national shutdown has pretty much tied our hands behind our backs.
My father is a construction worker who provides for a family of seven on less than R3 000 (£136) a month. He is currently unable to work and this affects our ability to eat, bathe and survive.
Just yesterday on our street there was a funeral, I was surprised because I didn’t even know anyone had passed away, but what really saddened me was the funeral itself. Just for context, in African culture funerals are a week long grieving and life celebrating event. This funeral was small and was all over within two hours.
My name is Duncan and I work for Amnesty in Mexico City. I’m from England but having spent 10 years in Mexico and it’s become a second home for me. It’s a wonderful country and I feel lucky to live here.
Mexico is a few weeks behind Europe and Asia, but we’ve seen the number of COVID-19 cases shoot up quickly in recent days.
Looking out from my balcony it’s surreal to see the streets largely deserted in a city of 20 million people that’s normally so noisy and chaotic.
My biggest concerns are whether Mexico’s public health service is equipped to cope with the impact of the pandemic, and what will happen to the millions of people in the informal economy, who account for over half the national workforce. Many live day-to-day and simply can’t afford to stay home and stop working.
Obviously it’s not ideal being so far from your family at times like these but social media makes it much easier to stay in touch. I’ve been doing social distancing for two weeks now, but my partner, pet cat and tortoise provide great company.
As we move forward, I take hope from the generosity and solidarity I’ve witnessed from the Mexican people in adverse circumstances, most notably when a devastating earthquake struck in 2017. I’m confident we’ll overcome this and continue to support one another through the difficult times that lie ahead.
At 90 years old, Bo is one of Amnesty’s oldest active members.
Our local group has cancelled its meeting and several other events, but we keep in touch by email. We are working on cases in Myanmar, North Korea and Saudi Arabia and are worried about what’s happening in all of these countries, but we can still campaign online.
Most of our local members are 70+ so we are hiding from the virus in self-quarantine. We keep sending letters and postcards to the usual addresses in our target countries. We are in regular touch with other Amnesty members around the world.
We are enjoying an early spring and watching the news a lot!
My name is Raymond and I’m from the Otodo-Gbame community in Lagos State. The coronavirus that’s around now is very tough for us. In 2017 we were evicted from our village in Otodo-Gbame by the government and since then haven’t been based in one place. At the moment I live with my wife, children and mother in an area of Lagos called Oreta. It’s an informal settlement and the building we live in has not been completed.
Since the coronavirus came we have to stay at home, which is very difficult for us. How can we cope when we can’t go out? We have nothing – everything we had was destroyed when we were moved from Otodo-Gbame. I am afraid of what this will bring. When you don’t go out you don’t know what’s going on. Hunger could kill us – we are afraid of that. We are also afraid that wicked people might come to our home, attack us, take what we have, and if we call the police they might say they cannot come because of the virus.
I ask the government: please look at us. Come to our places and look. We have heard the government is treating some people, giving ventilator machines, hand sanitizer, things like this, but we haven’t benefited at all. We are still suffering here – the government doesn’t know how we live. We want the government to come and see what our community needs, including water and proper roads.
We deserve to be safe from COVID-19 too
WHEN WE, THE POLLUTERS AND PREDATORS, ARE IN LOCKDOWN, THE LAND GETS A BREAK.Ruth
Santiago, Chile. Claudio Reyes, AFP
Ruth is an Amnesty activist living in Chile
When I was little my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said air hostess, because that’s what she was, but my mother looked at me and said “no, you will be a social worker”. I didn’t believe her – but I didn’t become a flight attendant, and I have always, until this day, been concerned about justice, inequality and human rights.
In Santiago we are in total quarantine so there’s a lot of time to think. I think about how some people will take advantage of this pandemic to make money. and I think of the workers in my country who are always punished by calamities. I think of the lack of social justice in Chile, and how selfish and individualistic people are. I think about how this pandemic shows the need to rethink our health systems. People are dying from lack of respirators and we need more equipment and more doctors with specialist training.
But I also think about the rest we are giving to our land. When we, the polluters and predators, are in lockdown, the land gets a break. And I also think about the pause we are taking ourselves to rethink our attitudes and our being, to restore our souls.
Manu is Amnesty International’s Philippines youth leader
My name is Manu and I’m from a little city called Valenzuela in the Philippines. We’re on our second week of lockdown. I’m feeling a mix of anxiety and resignation – I’ve been occupying myself by talking to friends and my partner over chat or Zoom. Normally there would be children playing outside our window. Now there are none.
I’m worried that COVID-19 has exposed the weak healthcare system that we have in the Philippines, the impacts of which are felt by our most vulnerable. Patients who need to travel for dialysis or chemotherapy are forced to stay at home. People living with HIV are unable to visit their clinics to access their medicine. People are afraid to miss work because it is more expensive than getting a doctor’s consultation or a hospital admission.
I think COVID-19 mirrors our struggles in human rights work: there are a lot of uncertainties. It can consume us. It can make us feel restless and powerless. So one tip for staying calm is to accept that it’s an integral part of our collective journey. We’ll pick up the pieces, go back to organizing, into the streets, and demand that universal primary healthcare is a human right.
Zilungile, South Africa
Zilungile is the chairperson of the Amnesty International Chapter at Fort Hare University
Within a few weeks this Coronavirus has infected and affected more than 1000 people in South Africa. Our government has put more focus on the cities – but what about the people in the rural areas?
Our country is being locked down for 21 days. Some people are ﬁnancially ready for this, but some are not. Our African mothers who used to sell food on the streets have lost their sources of income. Meanwhile those who are working for the government continue receiving their salaries.
On the 30th of March, our President publicly announced that we are entering a new phase, which includes the screening of our South African people. This is a big step taken by our government, and hopefully everyone will be screened for free. It is really a tough time but our government is trying.
However the strategy is not affecting everyone equally. How about testing everyone for free? How about delivering food in each and every household, especially the disadvantaged ones? Can’t this limit the number of people walking on the streets? Can’t it reduce the number of people becoming infected every day?
We must not be excluded and our rights must not be taken for granted.
AFTER EVERYTHING WE'VE BEEN THROUGH, THE RESILIENCE OF THE NEPALI PEOPLE IS TRULY UNMATCHEDTsering
Tsering works at Amnesty Nepal
The lockdown here has disproportionately affected migrant workers and the poor. Thousands of Nepali workers are stranded in foreign countries, many without jobs. The situation is equally dire for daily wage workers and people in the informal sector.
While the government has announced a few relief programmes, we are worried that these will not serve many vulnerable groups including refugees and undocumented people.
Even before the pandemic hit, Nepal’s healthcare system was already struggling to provide basic services, particularly in rural areas. So even though the number of COVID-19 cases here is still in the single digits, there’s already a shortage of test kits, ventilators and PPE for medical personnel. I think we are all troubled by the question of how the system will fare when the numbers begin to rise.
Since I live with my family, it has been relatively easy to cope with the lockdown. But there are lots of things I miss. I miss seeing my boyfriend, who I don’t live with, and just having the freedom to venture out on my own. To anyone feeling stressed, I’d say take a break from social media and find something physical to do. Cleaning the house has always worked for me as it gives me a sense of control and order.
As in the days following the 2015 earthquake when the state was struggling to coordinate rescue and relief efforts, it is ordinary Nepalis who stepped forward to help those in need. In Kathmandu, volunteers raised money to deliver essential supplies to Rohingya refugee camps. In Birgunj locals have been providing daily meals to stranded Indian workers, and in several parts of the city, neighborhoods are coming together to feed stray animals.
In the past two decades Nepalis have been dealt with one bad card after another. As a nation, we have survived a decade-long civil war, the devasting earthquake, and constant political upheaval. In the process, Nepalis have developed a level of resilience that truly cannot be matched.
THE AUTHORITIES NEED TO GIVE A HELPING HAND TO EVERYONE WHO IS POOR AND VULNERABLE IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMESAngèle
A street in Togo’s capital Lome
My name is Angèle. Normally I sell food and stationery in a school but schools were locked down because of COVID-19. The day the lockdown was decreed, everything I cooked to sell that day was brought back home. I could not sell anything.
Staying indoors is terrifying – I am a widow with 4 children and being confined due to the pandemic I see difficult days ahead. By now God’s grace is helping us survive.
The news of how pandemic is spreading is scary. We are instructed to wash our hands frequently with water and soap or use sanitizers, which we manage to do, because we know how important it is. But we need help to feed ourselves everyday, to buy foodstuffs and drinkable water.
The state authorities need to give a helping hand to everyone who is poor and vulnerable in these difficult times. Concerning hospitals and confinement centres, the existing ones are not sufficient. We need new hospitals and adequate medications to treat people. I also implore the government to provide us with materials we can use to prevent such pandemics in future.
Ana clapping for health workers
In the beginning we all wanted excuses to go outdoors for a while: shopping, walking the dog, visiting an auntie who needed help… But as the days go by we are more used to staying at home. We have become a bit scared of the empty streets and even the sound of the ambulances seems different: more alarming. I look out the window and see the beautiful old buildings of Madrid, staring at me in silence.
We are astonished and frightened by the rate of infections and deaths. Still, if we try hard, we are able to see positive moments in this crisis. For example, every afternoon we go on our balconies and applaud the health workers who are risking their lives. I hope that people will value the importance of our public health care system and will support it when this is over.
In the meantime life goes on. I am a press officer at Amnesty Spain. It’s not easy but we need to continue working even though some of our relatives and friends are suffering. Distant but together. Active but taking care of ourselves too. And when I see that something Amnesty is saying about COVID-19 and human rights is taken seriously by politicians and journalists I realise the importance of carrying on our work. Without putting human rights at the centre of every measure we take, we are not going to survive as a united society.
Robert and Masana meditating
Robert, South Africa
My name is Robert and I work for Amnesty here in Johannesburg.
There are so many people who need to be on site at their jobs – people who do construction work or domestic work, for example – and they have no choice but to keep using public transport, to keep going out. This really worries me. In South Africa the numbers are going up, and every morning we wake up to news that infections are rising.
Johannesburg has become a ghost town. You can actually count the number of cars and people that you see on the streets.
I’m in isolation with my wife and we are both working from home. We spend a lot of time playing with our daughter, who is three years old and no longer going to school. We have to keep her busy with homework and things, but it’s also good to have the time to play with her. We’re constantly checking the TV for government announcements. People are terrified because they don’t know what the future holds.
Life is no longer the same. I miss the traditions and routines of my life – things like going to the park on Sundays or going out for a meal with family on a Friday. And I miss being in work, sitting down with colleagues and brainstorming on human rights issues. That human contact is lost and I think it’s something we often take for granted, but now it’s gone I really feel it.
We will appreciate it so much in the future.
NB: The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.