By Margot De Vuyst, UNIA Legal officer & Jone Elizondo-Urrestarazu, Equinet Legal and Policy officer
A new and scary discrimination trend seems to be arising in Europe – and worldwide – fuelled by fear of contracting COVID-19 against those that are in the frontline of action. The daily lives of nurses, doctors and health care workers is increasingly being affected by discriminatory attitudes and harassment. On the World Health Day, we wonder, is existing antidiscrimination law prepared to deal with these cases?
Several Equinet members have called attention to discrimination against people suffering COVID-19 or those perceived to possibly being infected, especially health professionals.
Unia reported cases in Belgium of carers who are asked not to park their car in the neighbourhood and nurses who are required to wear gloves or clean the building when entering. Other caregivers who are encouraged to move as quickly as possible or even evicted from their homes. Unia has documented numerous cases of caregivers being stigmatized or even harassed by their neighbours and roommates.
In France, the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, denounced discriminatory practices towards healthcare workers. In Bretagne, a nurse claimed to have been evicted from her house because of her job. In Bayonne, a nurse arrived to her home after rendering her services to care and cure COVID-19 patients just to find a letter in her door asking her to park her car away from the neighbourhood, not to touch anything when she entered and asking her to move as soon as possible not to put other tenants in danger.
Equality bodies in some countries received complaints from health professionals because due to the pressure on the healthcare system, their parental rights are being violated and offended, for instance regarding breastfeeding leave, flexible hours and part-time work. While the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality of Serbia issued a public statement to citizens warning against intolerance towards people with COVID-19 (and by extension to those perceived as having it).
The mandates of our members vary, as do the grounds of discrimination protected under national law. In fact, EU equal treatment Directives do not cover the issue of discrimination based on health status. In some Member States, the transposition of these directives has been extensive, introducing legislation to either cover health status explicitly (by mentioning health status as a discrimination ground in the law) or implicitly (by having an open-ended list of grounds). This shows the importance of not translating the Directives to national law in a minimalistic fashion. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights offers a useful model in this regard. While it does not explicitly list health status among discrimination grounds, it has an open list of grounds and can therefore cover health status as well.
These negative behaviours stand in contrast with the support and encouragement from the wider society. We witness individual initiatives to buy health professionals food, donate protection gear that was used in different factories or laboratories or by different demonstrations in social media, with the widely publicised 20.00 applause or other initiatives. Retired health care workers have joined forces with those in active service to take care of COVID-19 and other patients, as have hundreds of volunteers. They are now on the front line in the fight against coronavirus and therefore need our support. Even if not strictly in their legal mandate, which is ultimately dependent on national law; equality bodies, as equality watchdogs, should feel free and be allowed a role voicing their equality concerns beyond their strict mandate, relying on their duty to promote an equal and fair society.
As Patrick Charlier, director of UNIA and board member of Equinet insisted, “These behaviours have no place in a society where solidarity must prevail. We are aware that we are going through a very exceptional period and that everyone is trying to protect themselves as best as possible against this virus. Stigmatization and segregation of health care workers have no place in our society. Let us not fall into this trap“.