DemocracyWatch: Roma hit hard by coronavirus crackdown

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6 May 2020, 12.00am
Roma man Daniel Gheorghe holds his son Timotei in the Romanian village of Frumusani
World Bank/Dominic Chavez

Further evidence this week of how marginalised groups get the cruder end of government responses to the pandemic. For instance, the technology being pitched to track COVID-19 was first developed to monitor the movements of refugees and other migrants into Europe. Then there are the Aboriginal groups in Australia who have been protesting after strict lockdown measures in a number of their towns have stopped them getting to supermarkets and clinics. 

Roma villages in Slovakia and Bulgaria have suffered the same fate: residents are barricaded into their settlements and far-right politicians blame them for spreading the virus because they can’t get clean water. And in the UK, too, Gypsy and Traveller groups have been hit hard by the crisis, with nomadic communities excluded from the government’s ban on evictions during the pandemic. 

Those who rely on relatives who have migrated sending money home are expected to take a large hit too, as the World Bank predicted an unprecedented collapse in remittances.

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Meanwhile on Sunday, World Press Freedom Day, the International Press Association said it has had 162 press freedom violations linked to coronavirus coverage over the past two-and-a-half months.

Throughout this crisis, openDemocracy, SourceMaterial, Privacy International and our friends and partners have been monitoring attacks on democracy, human rights and civil liberties around the world. You can see this week’s round-up below.

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China Beijing police arrested two volunteers for Terminus2049, a website that republishes news articles and social media posts censored by the government.

India A legislator from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was filmed warning people against buying from Muslims "infecting vegetables with saliva". Police in Indian-controlled Kashmir accused Pakistan of sending infected militants to spread the virus in the territory. Authorities made the Aarogya Setu tracking app mandatory for all public- and private-sector employees, raising concerns about privacy and surveillance. 

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said a system that the Inter-Services Intelligence use to track terrorists was being used to tackle coronavirus. The government removed about 1,800 names from its terrorist watch list without any public explanation, according to data collected by New York-based regulatory technology company Castellum.AI, which said the removal raised questions about the government’s motivation.

Malaysia Police said an operation to arrest hundreds of undocumented migrants in Kuala Lumpur was aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.;

Uzbekistan Quarantined patients were denied phones and laptops and journalists banned from quarantine centres.

Kyrgyzstan Emergency legislation appeared to have been copied and pasted from neighbouring Kazakhstan, a parliamentarian said.

Turkmenistan Authorities marshalled spectators into packed stadiums to celebrate Horse Day.

Sri Lanka The government dismissed calls to reopen parliament after a general election due on 25 April was postponed, while a vote rescheduled for 20 June remained doubtful. A soldier jailed for massacring eight civilians was the first prisoner to be pardoned in an amnesty to stem the spread of the virus in prisons. 

Iran Two journalists were arrested over a cartoon mocking traditional remedies for coronavirus, Reporters Without Borders said.

Bangladesh A TV journalist was beaten unconscious while trying to report on misappropriation of rice earmarked for the disadvantaged.

Philippines The telecommunications regulator ordered the country's leading broadcaster to cease operations immediately, saying its licence had expired.

Australia An Aboriginal elder was arrested protesting against lockdown measures, which residents said prevented them from visiting supermarkets and clinics. Officials urged more people to download the government's controversial COVIDSafe tracing app. The government said the app needs 10 million users to make it effective, with only 4.25 million downloads so far. 

Middle East & North Africa

Israel People wishing to enter markets and malls will likely be required to download a coronavirus tracking app. A parliamentary committee ruled to end mobile phone location tracking by the police, saying the harm to privacy outweighed the benefits. 

Kuwait Police fired teargas to disperse what they described as a riot by stranded Egyptians unable to return home amid the pandemic.

Lebanon One person was killed and dozens injured as the army opened fire on demonstrators defying the lockdown to protest against rapidly deteriorating living standards.

Libya The main hospital in Tripoli came under shell fire from opposition forces in the country’s ongoing civil war.

Morocco The justice minister moved to delay a draft social media law criticised for curbing freedom of speech.


Niger A polio outbreak followed the suspension of immunisation during the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization said.

Zimbabwe People not wearing masks in public spaces faced arrest.

Somalia Authorities detained three journalists and prohibited a local radio station from broadcasting in a local dialect.

South Sudan A peace agreement was threatened as oil revenues earmarked for security arrangements were diverted to combat the virus.

Sierra Leone Prisoners rioted in an overcrowded jail in Freetown amid concern over the virus and fears that inmates would lack food after the banning of visits.  

Uganda The national human rights commission said it had received 128 complaints about rights violations by security services enforcing the country’s lockdown. A court refused bail to nineteen people arrested for lockdown violations at a shelter for sexual minorities.

Madagascar Armed forces distributed a ‘cure’ for the disease invented by the country’s president.

Lesotho The government was forced to suspend a motion declaring a six-month state of emergency after opposition members called for wider consultations. Armed forces were deployed to "restore order" and enforce lockdown. 

Djibouti US forces declared a public health emergency at their only permanent military base in Africa after a contractor tested positive for the virus. 


Slovakia Police cordoned off five Roma settlements without informing residents about the duration or conditions of confinement, and without providing for adequate food or medical supplies. In one settlement, five children were beaten by a police officer. 

Romania Roma rights groups called for the dismissal of the interior minister, citing numerous incidents of police entering Roma people’s houses, beating children and using teargas indoors. 

UK MPs criticised Google, Twitter and Facebook for failing to answer questions about how they were tackling misinformation on the virus. Onfido, a company specialising in facial recognition, said it was in talks with ministers about creating digital health certificates to help people return to work. Several local authorities in England and Scotland were criticised for blocking the public from online meetings. The GCHQ spy agency gained powers to detect abuses of the NHS’s new contact tracing app, criticised for using a centralised model that creates “an unnecessary massive pool of sensitive data”. 

Bosnia Police opened a corruption probe after a raspberry farm owned by a television presenter received a government contract to import 100 ventilators from China.

Poland Doubts remained about whether a general election scheduled for 10 May would go ahead.

France Two civil rights groups took legal action to stop lockdown monitoring with drones by Paris police, claiming the practice had no legal foundation.

Bulgaria Authorities breached citizens’ data rights by withholding results of coronavirus tests, according to an investigation by Euractiv. Several mayors shut off Roma settlements with road blocks and police checkpoints, claiming lack of fresh water made residents unable to maintain hygiene. 

Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán answered calls to expel his Fidesz party from its European Parliament voting bloc by accusing both opponents and allies of spreading fake news about a coronavirus law allowing his government to rule by decree indefinitely.


Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro headlined a rally in the country calling for the suspension of courts and parliament

US Amazon reportedly bought heat-sensing cameras to monitor workers’ temperatures from a firm blacklisted for helping China detain Muslim minorities. A Florida judge criticised Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “deliberate indifference” to conditions for detainees during the pandemic, ordering hundreds to be released. Clearview AI, a facial recognition company reported to have amassed over 3 billion photos, said it was in talks with unnamed federal agencies and three US states about contact tracing. The American Civil Liberties Union filed cases in Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, Missouri and South Carolina demanding postal votes for all in November’s presidential election. 

Venezuela Ten journalists have been detained and more than two dozen threatened in the six weeks since the first coronavirus case was identified in the country.

Colombia Authorities opened an investigation into the role of the country’s agriculture minister, six other officials and two governmental agencies for the misappropriation of emergency coronavirus funds.

Argentina More than 100 illegal fishing vessels were reported in South American waters as coronavirus weakened marine protections.

Chile A referendum on the constitution was postponed because of the pandemic as anti-government protesters were arrested in Santiago after defying lockdown orders.

Peru Coronavirus restrictions further hampered Andean community groups’ efforts to protest against alleged property violations by mining companies.

Climate & environment

US Fossil fuel companies have taken at least $50 million in taxpayers’ money they will probably not have to pay back, with $28 million going to three coal companies linked to Trump officials, according to a review of coronavirus aid by Documented and The Guardian.Investor Warren Buffett sold his firm’s entire holdings in the four major US airlines, warning that the “world has changed” for the aviation industry.

Good news

Climate Renewable electricity will be the only source resilient to the present crisis, which has triggered the biggest global energy shock in seventy years, the International Energy Agency said.

US The American Civil Liberties Union released a guide on to how to protest while maintaining social distance. 

Gambia The Gambian press union, whose president lived in exile in Senegal under the previous regime, said it was managing to protect press freedoms under the country’s current president.

Philippines The pandemic, and protests against the crackdown it has brought, have led to a wave of solidarity and generosity in the Philippines.

Humans of COVID-19

I’m more afraid of Albania’s police than the virus” – don’t miss our collection of personal stories about how people around the world are experiencing the crisis.

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