What does Ebola have to do with human rights?

By Dr. Shobana Ananth, Health Network Coordinator and Jacqueline Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner

The Ebola epidemic is spreading rapidly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and threatens to spread further. Over 13,000 cases have been reported in eight countries this year, and almost 5,000 people have died. Current projections suggest there could be 10,000 cases—and 5,000 deaths—per week by December.

Health systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were already weak from years of armed conflict. They suffer from shortages in funding, staff, a lack of health care workers, and poor infrastructure. And now they are collapsing under the strain of responding to the Ebola virus. Without financial support and increased humanitarian and medical staff, the epidemic will continue to expand and many more lives will be lost.

So what does this have to do with human rights?

We all have the right to access the services and care needed to live a healthy life. Many people in Ebola-affected countries are not able to access any form of medical care right now because of the Ebola epidemic. In some places, restrictions on movement have been put in place to try and contain the virus—but, for example, they also prevent women from accessing pre-natal care and childbirth services. There are cases where hospitals have been closed, with pregnant women unable to deliver in appropriate facilities and leading to infant deaths. Because all available resources are being used to deal with the Ebola crisis, people with cancer, traumatic injuries, and other infectious diseases, for example, may find that there are no healthcare resources available to treat them.

We all have the right to freedom of movement. Quarantines, which restrict freedom of movement, may be justified under international law only if they are proportionate, time bound, undertaken for legitimate aims, strictly necessary, voluntary wherever possible, and applied in a non-discriminatory way. However, there have been reports of people in quarantine being left in dire situations, unable to access food or clean water and forced to share highly inadequate sanitary facilities. This leaves vulnerable populations open to multiple other types of infections and health issues endemic to the area, beyond the Ebola virus.

We all have a right to equality and to live free from discrimination. But because of their traditional roles in society and lack of access to information about how to protect themselves, women are disproportionately at risk of contracting Ebola. According to UNICEF, over half of the people dying from Ebola are women; in Liberia, reports attributed to the government claim that 55-75% of those dying are women. In many affected areas, women and girls shoulder the burden of caring for sick relatives and washing bodies for traditional burials. Most medical staff are women. Women are particularly vulnerable during pregnancy because they need to visit health facilities with great frequency, and thus are more likely to come into contact with infected persons. And women may not have access to information about how to protect themselves from Ebola. For example, the virus continues to be secreted in semen for several weeks after recovery; women may not know that condom use can help to prevent them from contracting Ebola, or they may not be in a position to negotiate condom use.

Governments in a position to do so have an obligation under international human rights law to provide international cooperation and assistance to those states which require it. The international response to the Ebola epidemic has been slow and inadequate. States must now step up their response and provide funding in additional to addressing the dire need for qualified medical and humanitarian staff to be deployed to affected countries.

What is Amnesty International doing?

Through our regional office in Dakar, Senegal, we are monitoring and reporting on the response to the Ebola epidemic from a human rights perspective. We have expressed concern about the inadequacy of the international response, which in some cases has left medical staff to work without vital protective equipment or basic facilities to treat patients. We are concerned at the conditions under which some people have been quarantined without access to food or clean water. And we believe that the impacts of the Ebola crisis on women and girls need to be assessed and responded to.

What can you do?

  • Read the blog by Amnesty International Sierra Leone’s director on life in the time of the Ebola crisis
  • Read our public statement on the response to the Ebola crisis
  • Write a letter calling for the release of a journalist in Sierra Leone detained for criticizing his government’s handling of the Ebola epidemic
  • Join our Health Network