By Sophie Hale, Equinet Membership and Network Development Officer
As the COVID-19 situation develops, it is vital that the core values of equality and non-discrimination continue to be protected and promoted for all. Throughout Europe, there is a serious risk that the COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate existing inequalities or create new discrimination patterns in our society. National Equality Bodies (NEBs) are public institutions that champion the core EU value of equality and defend the right to non-discrimination through assisting victims, providing expert advice and monitoring and reporting on discrimination issues. This means NEBs are uniquely placed to provide valuable insight into how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting equality in their countries and to help anticipate future challenges that may arise.
In this blog post, a brief snapshot will be given of some of the main trends of discrimination and inequality related to the COVID-19 crisis that NEBs are seeing in their national work and some of the ways that they are addressing these issues. Equinet, the European Network of Equality Bodies, asked its members about the impacts that they are seeing in their work as a result of COVID-19. Over half of our members responded to this initial call and provided information about how they are addressing the crisis nationally. Of the NEBs who responded, 60% reported that they have issued communications directly related to COVID-19 and 68% have received complaints or requests for information related to discrimination caused by the virus and the related preventive measures. As it has only a been a few weeks since the COVID-19 situation began in Europe, it is reasonable to expect that the number of NEBs responding to the crisis and seeing impacts on their work will increase substantially in the coming weeks.
The most common issues that NEBs from across Europe have reported concern discrimination against specific groups, namely people perceived as Asian or Italian. The types of discrimination include the denial of goods and services, refusal of access to accommodation and instances of hate speech, both online and in person. Several Equinet members also reported similar discrimination and hate speech incidents directed towards other minority groups, especially Roma and Travellers, stemming from individuals, private businesses and local authorities. NEBs have reported cases in which these groups that already suffer structural discrimination have become scapegoats accused of spreading or causing the virus. Additionally, NEBs across Europe have detected instances or received complaints of racist media coverage of the crisis that could exacerbate community tensions.
NEBs have also received complaints and requests for assistance on a broad range of other issues directly related to the COVID-19 crisis.
NEBs have received many employment-related complaints, such as cases of wrongful dismissal, employees being forced to use their annual leave for self-isolation and discriminatory treatment of employees with caring responsibilities. Moreover, in one instance, healthcare workers reported being denied their parental rights, such as breastfeeding leave and access to flexible working hours.
NEBs also reported various complaints concerning issues that are adversely and disproportionately affecting certain vulnerable groups, particularly older people and people with disabilities. These include a lack of access to healthcare and the cancellation of surgeries and care for illnesses not related to COVID-19. Another widespread issue across Europe which many NEBs are addressing is the unequal access to information about the pandemic for deaf people and those with hearing impairments. Many NEBs also reported working on addressing the increased risks to other vulnerable groups caused by the COVID-19 crisis, including victims of domestic violence, homeless people, and people deprived of their liberty, such as prisoners and migrants.
It is still early in the crisis, but NEBs across Europe are responding to these challenges in a variety of ways. Like many public services, most NEB’s staff have moved to remote working to help slow the spread of the virus. However, all NEBs have remained functional, receiving cases and conducting their vital work of monitoring and addressing threats to equality and non-discrimination. Many NEBs have issued public statements on their websites and on social media channels, providing information on the national situation in the context of the virus and highlighting the need for everybody to continue to respect equality and human rights. An innovative example of providing public information was submitted by the Ombudsman’s Office of the Republic of Latvia, which plans to create an anonymised online question and answer resource on its website based on the queries it has received related to COVID-19.
Many NEBs have also made public statements or issued communications to targeted audiences on specific topics related to the virus, such as on the rights and needs of vulnerable or disadvantaged groups. For example, the Croatian Ombudswoman released a public statement which, among other topics, focused on homeless people, Roma and residents of rural areas with less access to public services and basic needs, warning that these groups do not have equal opportunities to follow the recommended preventive measures. Similarly, the Slovak National Center for Human Rights issued information with official helplines and contacts at institutions for groups which may be at higher risk due to the COVID-19 situation, including victims of domestic violence, the elderly, children and youth, and persons with disabilities, as well as providing preventive information in minority languages. In France, the Defender of Rights has issued several statements and official letters regarding, for example, the safety of people who are deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 crisis.
Some NEBs have written official letters to government ministers and departments on specific areas of concern and sent recommendations to private companies and media outlets highlighting their responsibilities to comply with non-discrimination legislation. For example, Unia, the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, wrote to Mayors in Wallonia regarding the situation of local Traveller communities and the Commissioner for Protection of Equality of the Republic of Serbia sent recommendations to two media institutions regarding the need to provide accessible information on the pandemic for people with hearing impairments. Another approach used by some NEBs is working to combat the spread of disinformation. Two NEBs reported that they are tracking fake news about the virus that could potentially undermine equality and human rights and are following up with counter messages or working with fact checking websites to have misleading information removed or disputed. For example, a member of the Spanish Council for the Elimination of Ethnic or Racial Discrimination has used its position as a Trusted Flagger / trusted informant on social media to report many instances of anti-Roma hate speech related to the COVID-19 crisis. It has also worked with verification platforms to counter the COVID-19 related fake news spread by WhatsApp groups about the Roma community.
Overall, even at this early stage of the COVID-19 crisis, NEBs have reported multiple instances of discrimination and unequal treatment caused by stigma, disinformation and stereotypes. This is leading to certain people and groups encountering additional challenges. As this situation develops, Equinet will continue to collect information and good practices from its members to keep a current picture of the state of equality in Europe and how it is being affected COVID-19.