Opening remarks by Helena Fraser, UN Resident Coordinator: national dialogue on human rights protection in the context of restrictions introduced due to COVID-19
Thank you for joining us today. I trust all of you are well and healthy in these difficult times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has found most countries worldwide somewhat unprepared.
This is a health crisis of unprecedented proportions, with significant impact not only on health, but also on the economy and on society. In addition, countries with hundreds of thousands of migrant workers abroad like Uzbekistan, faces additional specific challenges.
Cooperation between the United Nations family and the Uzbek government on issues related to COVID-19 preparedness, response and recovery has been constructive since the inception of the pandemic, starting in January this year when WHO in Uzbekistan started to work closely with the Ministry of Health.
I very much welcome today’s event as a demonstration of the Government’s readiness to reflect on the importance of balancing public health measures with international health regulations and human rights standards and obligations, as well as to share some of the positive lessons that can be derived from the quarantine facilities and review areas for further improvement.
And I welcome the participation of some representatives of civil society today. The High Commissioner for HR recently noted that the World Health Organization strongly advised that health and social measures to combat COVID-19 be implemented with the full engagement of the public, because respect for human rights […] is an essential lever of successful public health policies. She said “The only effective way to fight an epidemic is with the public's trust”.
On 24 June I had the opportunity to visit one quarantine facility in Yukori-Chirchik district to get a firsthand understanding of the challenges faced, with a view to jointly identify effective solutions.
During the visit we spoke to government officials, doctors, nurses, caterers, and observed the reception area where relatives can bring medicines and other needed items. We also saw the interior of an unoccupied container inside the facility. And we had a frank conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Abdukhakimov and Professor Saidov, as well as the facility manager, on how the government can efficiently and promptly address the concerns faced by people in the facility.
Let me be clear. The quarantining of incoming travelers is an important element in the effort to suppress transmission of the virus. At Yukori Chirchik it was evident to me that a very significant investment has been made to ensure people are provided with minimum necessities: regular food and water, access to television, cooling and heating, a small outdoor exercise zone next to each container, a phone for external calls.
Nevertheless, placement in quarantine clearly limits people’s free choices. Such restrictions aimed at protecting public health should comply with principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and should be non-discriminatory. In order to minimize negative psychological effects of quarantine, the maximum available resources should be used to ensure that conditions in quarantine zones are adequate, and their treatment always needs to be respectful of their status as a free agent and to take account of their specific vulnerabilities.
Already starting in April, the UN Country Team has shared relevant guidance and recommendations to support Government decision-making on quarantine facilities. We are glad to see that some elements of recommendations have been taken into account. We also welcome the new interim clinical protocol on treating patients with light form of COVID at home. This is a welcome adjustment and will exclude a need to bring people from homes to the quarantine camps that can be understandably very distressful, in particular for children, the elderly, pregnant women and women with babies.
Outstanding recommendations that we discussed after the visit to Yukori Chirchik include:
- Ensuring the creation of an independent feedback and complaints mechanism, staffed 24/7, so that persons in quarantine can promptly convey concerns about their health, mental and physical wellbeing and thus receive timely support from relevant state authorities overseeing the facilities.
- The key role of the Ombuds office in this context: the Ombuds office should be the first port of call in addressing grievances and should organize regular monitoring visits, with participation of civil society.
- Designing tailored measures that consider special needs of the most vulnerable people, eg. small children, unattended minors, those who are sick, people with chronic diseases, people with disabilities, the elderly, and pregnant or lactating women to ensure no one is left behind.
- Ensuring adequate and appropriate access to required medicines, medical and social care, placement rules (families together, children with parents) and onsite psychological counselling.
- All quarantined persons should enjoy free access to information, their free interaction with the outside world should be ensured and facilitated, including by providing free WIFI, and other means of communication, opportunities to engage in purposeful activities, including on-line education, reading and on-line work.
- In line with WHO guidelines, we recommend that personal items, including smart phones, computers, tablets, and bank cards are not taken away from the quarantined persons.
- In order to ensure procedural safeguards, we also recommend that upon release from quarantine zones, all persons should receive proper documentation stating the period of quarantine, medical notes and dates/results of administered COVID19 tests.
- Finally, in this period of a new lockdown, we recommend allowing freedom of movement of advocates, so that they can freely assist persons in need, including those in quarantine zones, respecting the health guidelines.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Key to Uzbekistan’s commendable efforts in overcoming the pandemic is combating misinformation.
We all know that there are unconfirmed contradictory stories circulating online and offline, which have presented these very same quarantine facilities as both 5-star hotels and frightening prisons!
From my understanding, including from speaking to several people who have been in quarantine zones, the reality is of course somewhere in between.
And the only way to stop the spreading of rumors is to provide individuals in isolation with more access to the outside world. Ensuring access of journalists in line with epidemiological safety rules could also contribute to greater transparency and accountability regarding conditions in quarantine facilities and treatment of people inside, as well as to improved public confidence.
The UN Country Team stands ready to further assist all efforts aimed at improving the realization of the right to health of all Uzbeks, in line with WHO recommendations, and in compliance with international human rights standards.
Thank you very much.