As coronavirus lockdowns have been expanded globally, billions of people have found that they are now faced with unprecedented restrictions. Police across the world have been given licence to control behaviour in a way that would normally be extreme even for an authoritarian state.
On Tuesday, police in Kenya gave their “sincere condolences” after a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed on his balcony in Nairobi as police moved through the neighbourhood, enforcing a coronavirus curfew.
“They come in screaming and beating us like cows, and we are law-abiding citizens,” said Hussein Moyo, the father of Yasin, the boy who was shot.
Concerns are growing that police forces around the world are using gruelling and humiliating punishments to enforce quarantine on the poorest and most vulnerable groups, including tens of millions who live hand-to-mouth and risk starving if they do not defy lockdowns and seek work.
Over the past week, footage has emerged showing migrant workers in India crouched on the side of the road as they are sprayed with chemicals, apparently an attempt to disinfect them before they entered their home province.
The workers, who had returned from Delhi, were covered in a bleaching agent, sodium hypochlorite, which can cause damage to the skin, eyes and lungs, Indian Express reported. Elsewhere, in Punjab, people accused of breaking quarantine rules were made to do squats while chanting: “We are enemies of society. We cannot sit at home.”
Similarly humiliating tactics have been used by police in Paraguay, where people violating quarantine rules were made to do star jumps and threatened with a taser. Others were asked to repeat “I won’t leave my house again, officer” while lying face down on the floor.
Although there is a growing global consensus that efforts to protect public health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic demand temporary sacrifices of some individual freedoms, UN human rights experts have urged countries to ensure their responses by to the pandemic were “proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory”.
It is often the least well off – who cannot afford to stop working, or who are forced to walk for days to return to their family villages from the cities they worked in before the virus emerged – who are targeted by such punishments.
In the Paraguayan capital, Asunción, Alberto Ruíz, a member of a residents’ social organisation in the deprived Tacumbú neighbourhood, told the Guardian that authorities had done very little to support families left without any income.
Almost all citizens in the country are confined to their homes. “They tell you to stay at home, to protect your family. But in poor neighbourhoods, you have to go out to earn a living: if you don’t, you die of hunger,” Ruíz said.
Videos of the punishments in Paraguay – recorded and shared by officers themselves – were praised by the country’s interior minister, Euclides Acevedo, who said: “I congratulate them. I don’t have the same creativity as those that are making the videos.”
In the Philippines, police and local officials trapped curfew violators in dog cages, while others were forced to sit in midday sun as punishment.
The country’s main Luzon island has been placed under a month-long lockdown, with more than 40 million residents asked to stay indoors. But remaining at home is a far more comfortable experience if you have the luxury of space. For those sharing cramped rooms with family members, the heat in Manila can be unbearable.
Across the country, more than 17,000 people have been arrested for coronavirus lockdown-related violations, the website Rappler reported. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that such action is most likely to be counterproductive if offenders are then placed in overcrowded detention facilities.
Activists in Kenya have warned that heavy-handed policing not only risks fuelling panic and fear but may also be heightening transmission of the virus.
In the port city of Mombasa last week, police fired teargas at ferry commuters, causing hundreds of people crowded together to cough and wipe tears from their eyes. Officers were also filmed hitting people with batons.
“If the operation was supposed to protect people from spreading the virus, the operation achieved the exact opposite,” a statement by Kenya’s police reforms working group said.
There are also fears that governments are using concerns over the pandemic to increase their own powers, bringing in sweeping legislation that could be used to quash critical voices. On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a new set of measures including jail terms for spreading misinformation and allowing the nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to rule by decree under a state of emergency that has no clear time limit.
In the Philippines and Thailand, states of emergency have been declared, granting governments greater powers for a temporary period. This includes the ability to crackdown on the sharing of false information – a vague term that activists fear could be misused by officials.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said that freedom of expression and access to information should be protected by governments. While some restrictions on rights, such as those limiting freedom of movement, could be justified, the group called for transparency and “respect for human dignity”.
Additional reporting by William Costa in Asunción