While the pandemic rages on and the vaccine rollout continues to reveal deep inequalities within and between countries, the last eighteen months have been an opportunity to take inventory personally and as a rights-based community. Below you'll find responses from several rights practitioners from around the world. The prompt for this series was short and simple: share one insight that you've gained about life, the world, or human rights over the last year. But as you'll read and listen, the answers, though short, are anything but simple. They reflect the varied experiences and approaches that one may face when confronted with such a large-scale, transformational moment. We hope these pandemic insights will offer ideas and inspiration for the future of human rights beyond the pandemic.
Felogene Anumo, Kenya
"Re-awakening and re-imagining!” This phrase has taken on a whole new meaning in my life, and I imagine in our collective lives. The year 2020 has stretched our society in ways that no one could have predicted. As a mom of a 7 year old, I have rediscovered wells of creativity when schools in Kenya closed for almost a year.
The care crisis that we have witnessed has been of epic proportions. In the past year, I have had to re-think what connections mean and what brings people closer. Some of my closest relationships today are with people who are physically the furthest away from me. I have been refined by the fire of isolation, frustration, and the uncertainty of the moment. I live less on-the-go, and was forced to get off the hop-on, hop-off cycle that I had become accustomed to. This has allowed me to experience a certain depth and breadth in relationships and rituals.
It is also in this moment that I have been consistently reminded of the feminist slogan, the personal is political. We are living through a moment where social justice movements have strengthened their demands in recognition that what was once deemed impossible is indeed possible. From coronavirus tax reprieve to cushion the public from the effects of the pandemic here in Kenya to the Movement for Black Lives calls to reimagine public safety by defunding the police in the US. Social protections for workers, putting the public back into services such as water and sanitation provision for low-income communities and the public management of private hospitals.
While the promise of rolling out of the vaccine means that we may slowly get back to 'normalcy' and the policy measures may be provisional and short-lived, I hope it remains ingrained in our minds what really matters. The power of community, the need for care to sustain our economies and the truism that anything is possible. Most times - and certainly going forward! - it will be up to us but this time it took a whole pandemic.
Felogene is a Kenyan feminist activist, based in Nairobi.
Koldo Casla, United Kingdom
2020 was the year when we learned there was a thing called ‘the R number’, the year when we debated the conclusiveness of the evidence about the protective capacity of masks, the year when we awaited keenly a press release from a healthcare regulatory agency we had never paid much attention to before.Fiscal and socio-economic policies that were unimaginable fifteen months ago have become the new temporary mainstream, put in place by right-wing and left-wing governments alike. In 2020, rules changed quickly, sometimes overnight. Governments resorted to often unenforceable guidance when laws could not be adopted following the general procedure in which laws are normally adopted. The crisis of 2020 is the crisis of 2021 as well. This crisis is reminding us of the importance of kindness and collective support, the value in having strong public institutions we can fall back on when we need them. One might feel tempted to forecast, or to think wishfully, that this pandemic will teach us a lesson about the need to reverse the blind ideological commitment to neoliberalism of the last four decades.
We might be in Gramsci’s interregnum, when the old is dying and the new cannot be born, but I would not bet on it just yet. The so-called ‘new normal’ may end up meaning business as usual. I for one will keep advocating that we need more equality and more solidarity. But only time will tell if today’s health crisis does not lead to consequences similar to or worse than those of previous financial crises, with growing inequalities between rich and poor, between powerful and dispossessed. In ophthalmology, 20/20 means perfect vision, but I don’t think we had that in 2020. To continue working on it is a fine plan for 2021.
Koldo is a lecturer and the director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic, University of Essex.
Kerem Ciftcioglu, Turkey
Hi, this is Kerem from Istanbul, Turkey. I think there is something that is both hopeful and scary to the way that I have adapted to life with the pandemic. The hopeful part is about resilience. I have seen that I can adapt to the harsh conditions and find a way to go on. When life as we know it was interrupted in a way that we could only imagine in the context of a dystopian movie we all found new ways to connect, celebrate, and love. We managed to create new possibilities, making the best out of a bad situation. There is however a down side to the way we can adapt. I think it's about how we cannot stop. stop and acknowledge what just happened. i know I haven't sufficiently. This is known from the fact that the amount of work I did has not changed, if not increased during this time. Is this normal? Last time I checked, this was an interruption to our lives on a historical scale. shouldn't we have stopped what we were doing before adapting? I think that we find it more scary to stop even when compared to the pandemic itself. and from this perspective, I think our resilience to go on at any cost can become our weak spot. and in some ways, I think this lack of acknowledgement can be thought as synonymous to the way we respond to the calamities around human rights as people in this field. and therefore, my takeaway from this pandemic is that reflection is important. Reflection is easier in normal times and is more difficult in extraordinary times; however, that is the time when we most need it.
Kerem is a communications officer at the Truth Justice Memory Center in Istanbul, Turkey.
Tenzin Dolker, Tibet/USA
My feminism has helped me to flourish as a Tibetan woman of color with a working class and refugee background. As the world around us falls apart, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable, including my own loved ones near and far, I reflect on this gift of feminist practice from my ancestors, mentors, and friends. And coupled with a strong community of care, my feminism has kept me grounded, supported, and persisting during a time of great human turmoil.
While our planet made its last revolution around the sun in 2019, I also made my own small revolution: I birthed a beautiful human life into this tumultuous world of suffering.
My feminism always taught me to advocate, unapologetically, both inside the home and outside. I fought with scrupulous insurance companies for the best maternity care that we deserved. With my equally feminist husband, we learned and practiced “shared parenting.” After our parental leave, we formed pods with our parents who helped take care of our young baby while I juggled full time work, research, and community service. At AWID, I advocated and wrote on resourcing feminist organizing. With friends and family, I named and talked about the hardships and pain of going through labour with a third degree tear, the toll it took on my mind and body, and the long months of recovery. I spoke openly because all too often women’s pain and bodies, especially of Black and brown women are violently undermined, both by the state and society, again and again.
If not, how else can we explain the structural inequalities that lead to such a high mortality rate of Black and brown mothers in the US and around the world? What about the continued attacks on our basic sexual and reproductive rights? And the lack of parental leave, pay inequities, and lack of living wage? These are all basic human rights, and they are a baseline for a human society. Yet, so many of these fundamental rights are not realized, especially for the poor, working class, LGBTIQ and BIPOC women.
So, 2020 unmasked this once and for all: our policies, systems, institutions are not designed for people like us. Yet, we resist, struggle, and persist, both inside the home and outside. Because the long fight for basic human rights and feminist social transformations continues. Nevertheless, as the truth teller of our times, Arundhati Roy forecasted years ago: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Tenzin is a feminist movements coordinator at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).
Mary Louise Dumas, Philipines
Although it’s not for me to recount the experience of our partner communities, I observed that the pandemic was used to politically isolate remote communities. What had been a unified assertion for rights was threatened to become separate struggles. Even inside a single Ancestral Domain, if it encompasses different geopolitical divisions, their leaders could not move freely to consult and talk with the people.
Being based in the city, the institution I work with tried to serve as a bridge among the communities, as well as government agencies. We also tried to introduce online platforms to communities that previously had no access to the internet. Although it was difficult and there were remote communities we really could not reach, there was a semblance of connectedness.
In urban centers, advocacy work had to evolve. Forcing people to primarily rely on online campaigns, the pandemic highlighted the bubbles that many social and environmental movements have been wrapped in. Who attends the zoom conferences? Who likes event posts? They're usually the people who are already engaged in similar work. And unlike on-site mass mobilizations, there are no bystanders or commuters who could see the placards, hear the shouted messages. Online, people only see what they want to see, what they have been seeing. These commercial platforms are, in fact, effective social blinders. Plus there’s the flood of fake news that goes unchecked.
How could a message about the environment, about Indigenous Peoples get to individuals who are more active online for leisure and laughs? I think the most effective method I saw had been to go personal. If chain mails could get to a larger public, so could relevant messages. This simple information chain relies on a person's immediate circle of friends, and the ability to craft effective messages. It starts small, but it could build momentum to span different social clusters, to reach beyond the bubbles we work in.
Mary Louise Dumas is a human rights activist from the Philippines. She has been working with Indigenous Peoples and farmer groups as a development communication practitioner for over a decade. She holds a masters degree in media, peace and conflict studies.
Youssef Farhat, USA
Covid-19 has stirred a painful reality of being in the closet. The vulnerability, the loneliness, the dependence on the other, and the need to protect myself and the other. So I learned that I have nothing to hide. Instead, I have something to give and that inside of me boils a soft revolution.
Youssef is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Dayton.
Maimouna Jallow, Kenya
Hi, my name is Maimouna Jallow. I'm a playwright, film director, and also a communications specialist. During the Covid pandemic, when everything outside stood still, I began to hear myself in ways that I hadn't been able to in a very long time. And it was as though I'd found a treasure box that had been lying at the bottom of the ocean for years. And suddenly, I had the time and perhaps more importantly, the silence that I needed to open it up. And in there, the personal was intertwined with the political and the social, so when I wanted to shout out about social injustice in my city, Nairobi, but felt silence and powerless to get into the ears of those in power, I started to write again and I wrote a play that puts ordinary citizens at the center and exposes the hardships that they face. One of the characters puts it perfectly when she says we try to live good lives but the city spits us out everyday like cockroaches. So after I had written the play, when I couldn't stage it because, of course, theatres around the world, much like everything else except global trade, it seems, had shut down, I turned it into an experimental film and everytime my plans were turned upside down, I became aware of our power as humans to adapt. And this period has taught me that if we're willing to be flexible we can find new ways of doing things. and if we can transform ourselves there's nothing stopping us from learning new ways to transform the world around us.
Maïmouna is a Kenya-based communications consultant and storyteller.
Shivani Jacelon, Trinidad/USA
This year has taught me the importance of introspection. As a woman, an immigrant new to the United States, a person of color, and a lawyer, the pause created by the pandemic caused me to pause and reflect on not only what it means to be human but how our varying experiences of humanness including race, gender, immigration status, and income status profoundly impacted how the pandemic shaped our lives. This year taught me, through this introspection, and also how hearing, listening to, and trying to better understand the narratives of others, that intersectionality is profoundly important when examining human rights. And how human rights can and should respond to crises like Covid-19. This year has spurred me to remember, accept, and utilize my own narratives of intersectionality in order to recognize and better use my privilege as a lawyer who is in a position to fight for others who are not as privileged as me. This year, above all else, has caused me to want to be more than just myself. and to confront and overcome my own insecurities and my own doubts in order to help others who need everyone fighting on their side.
Shivani is a lawyer based in New York.
Tarini Manchanda, India
It's been a rollercoaster of a year, but our personal lives finally became intertwined with the public. As we all began to have more time at home and reflect on the work-life balance, it dawned on me that no amount of inaction, expression, or intention can truly address the large problems of our times. We live in systems designed to function in ways that are irrelevant to the immediate problems. Speculation leads to hypothesis after hypothesis, but little is done to protect and manage what is already suffering or being lost. If we are to solve anything, we have to remain awake and cognizant of our immediate surroundings, the local, the ones who's lives affect ours even as we write about global issues that concern the wider public. It's important to retain the access to our personal worlds and reimagine work, and to remain compassionate.
Tarini is a writer and filmmaker.
Pooven Moodley, South Africa
As humanity, we either don't know how to connect the dots or deliberately don't want to connect the dots in terms of where we are on the planet at the moment. Even with COVID I mean, what we've seen is a trajectory that's gonna lead us to the sixth mass extinction, given the acceleration of a range of projects, extractives, fossil fuels, that continues to decimate the planet. So as we head closer to this very crucial time, indigenous communities have been saying that we have about four years now to really fundamentally shift where we are. And what we do see at the moment is just an increase in terms of the human rights violations that are going on across the globe, and also the destruction in terms of the environment as well. So I guess the big question is, you know, as we reflect on this time, this is the time in terms of humanity, this is the time for us to fundamentally and radically shift things. And I think we need to find new or old and different ways of doing this, some of the strategies that that we've been trying for decades, have, you know, helped to a certain extent, but I think, you know, it's going to be an ongoing struggle and something that we cannot afford to lose steam or lose momentum around. So it's really time for us to collectively come together and figure this out to protect the rights of people and the environment.
Pooven is a Human Rights and Environmental Lawyer from South Africa. He is the Executive Director of Natural Justice and also is the ICCA Consortium Council co-chair on Defending Territories of Life.
Dimitrina Petrova, Bulgaria
This pandemic year brought a number of lessons and while it may be too soon to make sense of it all, I would highlight two observations. Firstly, how frighteningly easy it is in extraordinary circumstances such as health emergencies, for governments to overreach and for our liberties to be suppressed. And also how easy it is to unravel equalities, equal rights, with impunity. For example, in Bulgaria where I work, the most vulnerable people were let down massively. The elderly, and people with health conditions that put them at high risk of dying from Covid-19. It is exactly these people that were put at the end of the queue in the vaccination plan. So, this is my first lesson: how fragile our rights and our equalities are. My second observation is about technology and human rights. This pandemic year made it plain that artificial intelligence is a risk to our freedoms. that we are all hostages of the algorithm. Companies and governments will soon know everything about us. We have entered the age of total surveillance. it is already possible for our decisions to be manipulated and our actions to be controlled. So we must urgently address technologically-enabled threats to our rights. We must oppose control and reject manipulation.
Dimitrina is a human rights and democracy advocate based in Bulgaria.
Gulika Reddy, USA
As a human rights lawyer, you're constantly needing to adapt to change. It could be the result of a changing geo-political situation or changes in needs and priorities of individuals in impacted communities. You're also constantly needing to navigate uncertainty. You're often working on issues where the horizon is murky. Or where there aren't any clear or easy answers. Or there's uncertainty about whether the issues you are working on will ever be solved in your lifetime. And yet it's those issues, the ones that are murky, the ones that are challenging that need to be addressed. And often you need to exercise leadership and take others along with you as you navigate that uncertainty and guide them through that process as you are navigating it yourself. And this past year with Covid has been a way to practice that, a way to practice navigating uncertainty, a way to practice adaptability to change. And it's been a reminder of lessons that we are learning constantly as a human rights advocate and has served as a teaching moment in the organizations or the students that we work with as well as a learning moment for ourselves as human rights advocates.
Gulika is a New York-based human rights advocate and the Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic.
Carlos Rosero, Colombia
This past year has been like a river full of ideas and images that raise questions and sometimes certainties. With an activist colleague of mine, we asked ourselves what happened to the Neanderthals? And we answered that Homo Sapiens Sapiens, i.e. us, will also disappear from the earth. We are not masters of nature and so the collapse of many ecosystems, as a result of our intervention, prepares the way for our extinction. The realization of knowing that we are animals has finally taken away the last hint of fear in the face of death. We are all going to die individually and as a species. For now, there are no exceptions to this rule. We are a species at risk of extinction.
August 27 marked one more year since the issuance of Law 70 of 1993. From the beginning of the quarantine, we defended the idea of special measures, among them a plan and specific budgets to attend to Indigenous peoples and Black communities because they are more exposed, have less health infrastructure and conditions to attend to the emergency. In a country that enshrines ethnic and cultural diversity, the right to equality and affirmative actions to address inequalities, that day, the Minister of the Interior said that the virus affected us all equally and that there would be no special plan for anyone. The pandemic was responsible for revealing racism in many of its dimensions. Colombia was no exception.
The pandemic meant more control of armed actors in our territories. In these territories, the economic reactivation already entails a greater expansion of illicit crops, illegal and unconstitutional mining. More war, militarization, displaced, murdered, confined, destruction of the cultural and organizational fabric of communities and environmental destruction - including fumigations. Our elites have not learned their lesson.
Carlos is the founder of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia (PCN).
Rafael Uzcátegui, Venezuela
After a year of social distancing measures, the sense of security that we had developed as a species, surviving without threats, counting on the expectation of a long life expectancy, has weakened. Scientific and technical knowledge as well as urban development made us believe that we are oblivious to the threats that had decimated the population in previous centuries. The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed this certainty. The response to the pandemic in most countries has been erratic and inefficient. In the Venezuelan case, the regime of Nicolás Maduro has confronted the pandemic, not as a health emergency, but as a threat to its governability. The real findings on the evolution of the disease have been hidden, being replaced by propaganda that assures that everything is under control and that we have the lowest number of infections and deaths in the continent. We, the citizens, have had to fend for ourselves, so that the preservation of health has been privatized by the way of facts. But this situation has a positive side. For a long time, Venezuelans described themselves as supportive and generous. A culture of cooperation flourished during the years of oil wealth. This seemed to disappear due to recent intense government intervention, but, without public policies to protect us, we Venezuelans have had to take care of ourselves and have been forced to share bowls of soup with our sick neighbors or collaborate with crowdfunding from other Venezuelans we did not know. Within the nightmare then there have appeared coconuts of hope about the possibilities of rebuilding and reimagining ourselves as a country.
Rafael is a sociologist and the general coordinator for the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA).
Patricia Tobón Yagarí, Colombia
During this pandemic, I learned to value life, and the importance of sharing more with loved ones, as well as the importance of continuing to maintain ties of solidarity and to demand rights and support for communities that have been historically violated. Seeing in that pandemic the situation in which these communities find themselves, I became more aware of the importance of the work of human rights defenders in supporting these communities; actions that are necessary to generate change and help improve the lives of these communities despite the circumstances of inequity and adversity in which they find themselves.
Patricia is one of the 11 commissioners serving on Colombia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a member of the Embera Chamí indigenous group and a constitutional lawyer.
If you would like to share your own pandemic insights, send us a short paragraph using the submission form.