18 May 2020

Collateral effects of COVID-19 restrictions: discrimination and abuse

Increased cases of discrimination and abuse have been reported across the globe as an unintended consequence of COVID-19 related restrictions. What steps can be undertaken by authorities and what role should employers play in mitigating and responding to their employees' well-being?

Around the world the restrictions imposed by governments over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are causing profound changes in people's lives. While most will be temporary, the mental and physical well-being of people is a cause for major concern, especially with increased incidents of discrimination and abuse. How can employers help and would they be responsible?

After weeks of lockdown and curfew measures, officials across the globe reported an increase in cases of violence and harassment towards certain groups, as a result of stress, anxiety and deprivation of work and free time. Healthcare workers are among the most vulnerable during the pandemic. While in many countries, the medical staff have been supported and praised as heroes for their response to the crisis, in others, medical workers have held protests and strikes over the lack of protective equipment and seriousness of government response. In countries like Mexico, dozens of nurses and doctors have become targets of discrimination and abuse after having wrongly been accused of spreading the disease. Medical workers have been instructed by their employers to not wear their uniforms outside workplaces to avoid being targeted, denied service in supermarkets, forced out of public transport or even being physically attacked, like a nurse in Culiacán, Sinaloa, when a man threw a bag of bleach at her, or temporarily arrested, like a doctor in Monclova, Coahuila, following a scuffle with police officers who followed him home after first denying him passage at a checkpoint due to his profession. Residents in Axochiapan, Morelos, threatened to set a local hospital ablaze if workers agreed to treat COVID-19 patients. Following these incidents, authorities deployed some 1,600 National Guard officers to safeguard hospital entrances across the country.

Millions of people across the globe now work remotely. Incidents of domestic violence have reportedly increased in multiple countries during the lockdown measures. Control-oriented people are taking advantage of the restrictions, while increased use of alcohol could further aggravate violent behaviour. Authorities urge victims of domestic violence to search for help in all situations. Reports from Italy, however, indicate that during the first weeks of the lockdown, helplines received fewer calls than usual because many women found it difficult to ask for help due to social isolation and lack of private space. Meanwhile in China, domestic violence hotlines temporarily collapsed in areas under lockdown due to a deluge of calls. Authorities in countries like France and Spain have found creative responses by creating alert systems within pharmacies and opening pop-up counselling centres at supermarkets - one of the few open spaces.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees. While they are not responsible for the unprecedented circumstances, the crisis imposes a certain obligation to be vigilant regarding the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees. In countries like Canada, some provinces require employers conduct risk assessments and put measures in place to reduce and eliminate risk at remote work situations. At the very least, employers should establish visual or verbal check-in procedures, keeping regular contact with all employees. Meanwhile, employees also have a duty to take care of their own health and safety, including through organising their work to reduce unnecessary exposure to risks. Creating their own personal space where possible could increase tolerance for each other in households, while practicing routines and mindful self-care can support positive mental health during the quarantine.