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Fiona Adolu, prioritizing human rights in Zimbabwe during COVID-19

22 May 2020

Picture of Fiona Adolu


Fiona Adolu is UN Human Rights’ Human Rights Adviser attached to Zimbabwe’s UN Country Team. She supports the Resident Coordinator and the UN Country Team in mainstreaming human rights into their programmes and activities; provides technical advice and facilitates engagement with UN human rights bodies; and responds to human rights capacity building needs of Government Institutions and civil society organizations.

To date, the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Child Care has reported 44 cases of COVID-19 infections. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Zimbabwe against a backdrop of increased humanitarian need attributed to multiple climatic and economic shocks that have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities across Zimbabwe.

Respecting lockdown measures and hygiene advice to curb the spread of the pandemic has proven a challenge for a majority of the population left with little income, limited access to healthcare services and to safe water.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

The biggest challenge has been operating virtually because of the lockdown that came in response to COVID-19. With the lockdown, all the partners, including Government Ministries, Independent Human Rights Institutions such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, and civil society organizations have literally closed offices. The expectation is that these institutions will continue operating virtually or remotely. However, they are facing operational challenges as most Government establishments and institutions do not have the basic resources such as internet to continue operating remotely as necessitated by social distancing rules.

Some institutions were already struggling because of the economic crisis and staff have, in some cases, been using their personal resources to continue working; but these can only stretch so far particularly when faced with extended power cuts and fuel shortages. Consequently, maintaining communication and continuing work, and organizing virtual meetings is a serious challenge and, in a number of cases, physical meetings are still taking place with the attendant risks.

We have tried as the U.N. to see how we could support in addressing these challenges, especially by providing Government institutions with better connectivity. In recent weeks, after the initial flurry, there has been much improvement in our interactions with our various counterparts.

What has UN Human Rights been doing in Zimbabwe to protect people's rights during this pandemic?

I am a human rights advisor to the UN Country Team and to the UN Resident Coordinator, currently working without a dedicated team. My role has been to integrate human rights in the responses of UN agencies and of the Government to the COVID-19 pandemic. I provide the technical support required to integrate human rights and ensure that human rights standards are adhered to. For instance, I developed with the support of the UN Human Rights Working Group a checklist of human rights standards to adhere to when responding to the pandemic and these have been shared widely with civil society organizations and the government structures that were established to respond to the pandemic. The UN agencies in Zimbabwe are using these standards as well.

We have done a lot of advocacy as well, with the resident coordinator, talking to the heads of the security agencies to ensure that the police and security forces implement lockdown measures in compliance with human rights standards. The tendency of the Government has been to concentrate on responding to COVID-19 only, so we have urged the U.N. agencies in Zimbabwe to ensure that the realization of human rights, such as the rights to health and access to health services, continue for people who suffer from other health conditions. We have developed guidelines and guidance that everybody can use, and conducted trainings for members of humanitarian clusters to ensure that they adhere to human rights standards as well.

What are the main human rights issues at stake in Zimbabwe in the COVID-19 response?

The pandemic came at a time when Zimbabwe was faced with human rights challenges beyond the normal human rights challenges. At the beginning of the outbreak, they had just come out of cyclone Idai that badly hit the country in March 2019 and the effect of that on the humanitarian landscape, together with the El Nino-imposed drought, was quite strong. You can therefore imagine that COVID-19 came at a time when Zimbabwe was facing crises at various levels. The economic situation was in dire straits as well. It is the entire gamut of human rights, such as access to water and the rights of persons with disabilities, that has been challenged. COVID-19 has greatly affected the right to work particularly in a country where livelihoods depend on the informal sector that employs over 70 percent of the population. Under the lockdown measures, a huge number of people have been unable to sell their wares on which their day-to-day survival depends. The pandemic has also exacerbated pre-existing issues with access to water, which is crucial to ensure proper hygiene.

The excessive use of force by the security forces implementing lockdown measures was also reported. The prisons are already congested, making it worse during COVID-19; it would take only one case getting into the prison system to create a problem. Right now, we are also assessing the situation of irregular migrants, including Zimbabweans who are returning from South Africa and neighbouring countries. Over 1,000 Zimbabweans returned in a single weekend, some of whom were sent back from repatriation facilities in South Africa.

What have been the biggest challenges and lessons learned thus far during the pandemic?

The biggest challenge for us has been that ability to collect timely information on the human rights situation in the country, particularly in communities, in an environment where everybody is on lockdown. People rely on public transportation and on electricity, especially now, for internet connectivity to do their work. Organizing meetings has been difficult. The challenge due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) so that frontline workers can access the communities they need to. We have had situations where health facilities in rural areas have virtually closed down because health workers who do not have PPE want to protect themselves, and as a result are unable to provide the health services the population needs.

On the other hand, the Courts in Zimbabwe have remained alive to the importance of safeguarding human rights during this period. The Courts have, for instance, determined that law enforcement officers must respect human rights and the dignity of people while enforcing the lockdown measures and that they must not interfere with the work of journalists; that the Government must make provisions for citizens to access water as a right; that persons with disabilities have a right to information about the pandemic in accessible formats; and that the Government must provide all frontline workers with the requisite personal protective equipment. This is also an attestation to the vibrancy of the civil society in this country who, despite the challenging times, continue to pursue the protection of human rights.

Why is it important to stand up for human rights, together, during this pandemic?

This is very much a public health issue, but the impact of it has been on the entire gamut of human rights. I do not think there is a human right that has not been impacted by COVID-19 and therefore the foundation of our responses has to be in human rights for us to be able to beat the disease, and to address the constraints and the challenges that come with it. The only way to do it is by standing together in protecting and promoting human rights.


22 May 2020