COVID-19 and threats to human rights: another HIV parallel

Simon Collins, HIV i-Base

Nearly all the early reports on the new coronavirus outbreak – whether in mainstream or scientific journals – tagged the coronavirus outbreak in relation to its location in Wuhan and/or China.

Although this was soon changed to using the appropriate medical name of coronavirus-2 or SARS-CoV-2 – one outcome was to associate the early epidemic with racist reactions.

Even in late March 2020, global responses from the G20 virtual summit were hampered by US instance of referring to the Wuhan Virus.

In some Western countries, including the UK and the US, people stopped visiting Chinese restaurants (when restaurants were still open) and there were cases of individuals being assaulted.

The opening session of CROI 2020 – the leading US scientific HIV conference – noted the importance of bringing our shared experience from HIV to coronavirus.

Now that CoV-2 has been declared a global pandemic that has threatened healthcare services in every country the importance of equitable access to care also has similarities to the HIV response, with the urgency to make sure marginalised communities are not excluded.

The following articles include related statements and links.

UNAIDS condemns misuse and abuse of emergency powers

On 9 April 2020, UNAIDS issued a statement on countries using emergency powers or public health justifications to restrict rights related to personal autonomy, gender identity, freedom of speech and sexual and reproductive health and rights. There have also been concerning reports of increases in criminal penalties in relation to HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure and the use of police powers to target, through arrests and brutality, vulnerable and criminalised groups, such as sex workers, people who use drugs, people living with HIV and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

For example:

  • In Hungary, a new bill has been introduced to remove the right of people to change their gender and name on official documents in order to ensure conformity with their gender identity, in clear breach of international human rights to legal recognition of gender identity.
  • In Poland, a fast-tracked amendment to the criminal law that increases the penalties for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission to at least six months in prison and up to eight years in prison has been passed—a clear contravention of international human rights obligations to remove HIV-specific criminal laws.
  • In Kenya, civil society organisations, prompted by concerns about actions being not consistent with a human-rights based epidemic response, released an advisory opinion calling for a human rights-based approach to be adopted in the COVID-19 response and have released a letter calling for a focus on community engagement and what works for prevention and treatment rather than disproportionate and coercive approaches.

Source: UNAIDS press statement. UNAIDS condemns misuse and abuse of emergency powers to target marginalized and vulnerable populations. (9 April 2020)

Statement for HIV Justice

On 25 March 2020, a coalition of HIV community advocacy groups published a joint statement on criminalisation related to COVID-19.

The organisations include AIDS Action EuropeAIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA)Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal NetworkGlobal Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+)HIV Justice Network;  International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW)Positive Women’s Network – USASero Project; and Southern Africa Litigation Centre.


HIV Justice press statement. HIV justice worldwide steering committee statement on COVID-19 criminalisation. (25 March 2020).

NAT statement on employment issues

NAT (National AIDS Trust) have updated their information on HIV and coronavirus (COVID-19).

This is especially for people who need to isolate themselves but have not yet had a conversation with their employer or others close to them about their HIV status.


NAT. Employers must support people living with HIV to follow guidance on coronavirus (COVID-19).

Harm reduction and COVID-19

Safer drug use during the COVID-19 outbreak: harm reduction tips

Some of these are easier to do than others, and some may seem impossible depending on your current situation. Do the best you can. Reach out to friends, harm reduction, syringe service providers (SSP), and other health or social service providers to plan for what to do to so you can stay safe and take care of one another.

Providing care for people who inject drugs and for people in prison

Practical tips for harm reduction and OST clients and harm reduction/OST service providers is provided by UNODC.

Importance of harm reduction services during the COVID-19 crisis

A community statement from harm reduction networks include 12 demands for care of people who use drugs.

People Who Use Drugs (PWUDs) can be considered as a risk group in the COVID-19 epidemic. They often live in the margins of society with low or no access to housing, employment, financial resources, social and health care, and face systematic discrimination and criminalisation in majority of countries.

Many have multiple health problems that can increase the risk of a (fatal) COVID-19 infection (including long-term diseases such as COPD, HIV, TB, cancer, and other conditions which reduce the immune system).

Harm reduction services are often the one and only contact point for PWUDs to access the health service. They provide health and social services as well as other basic support, and function as an essential link to other live-saving services.

Ref: The position of Correlation-European Harm Reduction Network and the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association on the continuity of harm reduction services during the COVID-19 crisis (19 March 2020)


Links to other websites are current at date of posting but not maintained.