Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic: Protecting Vulnerable Groups

This eighth edition of Freedom House’s weekly newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, draws attention to the particular difficulties faced by persecuted religious communities and LGBT+ people during the ongoing health crisis.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

This is the eighth issue of Freedom House’s weekly coronavirus newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic.

Special Features:

This week we feature two contributions from staffers affiliated with Freedom House’s Emergency Assistance Programs (EAP), which support individuals around the world who are targeted because of their religious beliefs, sexual orientation or gender identity, or work as human rights defenders. In the first piece, Urooj Arshad of the Dignity for All program writes about the disproportionate impact of the crisis on LGBT+ people, and how she has already seen the effects play out in her work. In the second piece, Sam Selsky writes about religious minority populations that have faced increased discrimination under the guise of combating the pandemic.

bangladesh covid coronavirus religious groups
Masked people maintain social distancing guidelines while praying in a Bangladeshi mosque. Image credit: Sk Hasan Ali /

The May issue of our China Media Bulletin is also out. The CMB is a unique monthly roundup of censorship, media freedom, and internet freedom issues related to the People’s Republic of China, edited by Sarah Cook, Freedom House’s senior research analyst for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Sarah’s been doing incredible work explaining how the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship and disinformation campaigns are changing and accelerating in response to the coronavirus crisis. If you like what you see in this month’s issue, sign up and get it direct to your inbox every month.

Here is a selection of other important stories we are watching around the world:

  • In Bolivia, the government reversed course last week and repealed provisions in three recent decrees that had threatened freedom of expression. The measures imposed criminal penalties for the publication of information that generates uncertainty or puts public health at risk, using vague language that presented a clear opportunity for abuse by the authorities. Freedom House and other human rights organizations had called for the government to annul these provisions.
  • In Zimbabwe, three opposition activists were allegedly kidnapped and tortured after participating in a demonstration in Harare over the lack of a social safety net for poor and vulnerable communities during the pandemic. Freedom House has called for an urgent investigation into the incident. As the chief of party of our Southern Africa program, Tiseke Kasambala, wrote last week, heavy-handed responses from governments in the region could fuel unrest given some countries’ histories of state abuse and the resulting lack of public trust.
  • In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expanding his powers through amendments to the country’s emergency law, going well beyond what is necessary to protect public health. Egypt has been under emergency rule for most of the past four decades, with only short interruptions, meaning changes to the law could have far-reaching effects.
  • The United States government announced six weeks ago that the pandemic had forced it to suspend the processing of asylum claims. But the right to seek asylum is a founding principle of international law that is also guaranteed by US law, and when members of Congress pressed the administration for its full legal reasoning, it replied with a page-and-a-half email. Law professor Oona Hathaway has dissected the flimsy legal argument and concludes that the government appears to be using the pandemic as a pretext for an illegal policy change it was already seeking.
  • The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has a new briefing series on the pandemic and its implications. The first paper is on how to hold elections safely during this and other public health crises.

Heroes: World Central Kitchen

This week we applaud World Central Kitchen (WCK), a food charity started by Spanish-American chef José Andrés that is now providing COVID-19 relief all over the United States. WCK has served 6.5 million fresh meals during the crisis, and provided restaurant workers with jobs at a time when the industry is sharply curtailed. You can see what this work looks like in the hospitals of New York City, where WCK is providing hundreds of thousands of meals to essential workers. It’s yet another reminder of the importance of a free and robust civil society with organizations engaged in a variety of activities, including providing basic support services in areas where the state and the commercial sector fall short.

That does it for this week. Stay safe, and stay free.