As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, many countries are reverting to nativist tendencies to protect their own citizens. With governments prioritizing their struggling economies, human rights groups are urging policymakers not to forget the world’s most vulnerable.
Such support is especially crucial amid the coronavirus given that the poor are particularly susceptible to the disease because of a lack of basic health care and crowded living conditions in places like refugee camps.
Social distancing in such close quarters is virtually impossible. Moreover, delivering humanitarian aid has become increasingly difficult because of closed borders and disrupted supply chains.
One artist known for his outspoken advocacy of free speech and human rights is using his fame and creativity to raise awareness about the plight of the world’s poor during the pandemic. The fact that much of his advocacy is focused on repression in his homeland of China, where the pandemic began, adds another element of powerful visibility to his efforts.
Ai Weiwei, the dissident Chinese artist and humanitarian activist, launched the MASK project to raise funds for humanitarian and emergency relief groups amid the pandemic.
Ai was carving with his son one evening when he imprinted a middle finger on a face mask. He took a photo and posted it on his Instagram account and requests came piling in asking where people could order the mask.
The artist became motivated to create more imprinted masks, with all of the proceeds going to three organizations: Human Rights Watch, Refugees International and Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières).
During a June 22 webinar hosted by Refugees International, Ai said he had no interest in simply raising money for a coronavirus vaccine — as he figured various other groups were already doing that. Instead, he wanted to support groups that would address the pandemic’s effects on the poor and vulnerable — while reinforcing his ongoing campaign to promote free speech and human rights.
The masks, which sold for $50 apiece on eBay, have raised a total of $1.4 million.
“As an artist, I always think that crisis is always an opportunity,” he said, “because it makes people more aware and think about what can be done.”
Even the most advanced health care systems in the world are being overwhelmed by COVID-19, according to Cindy Huang, vice president of strategic outreach at Refugees International. “The pandemic has shown us that health for one is really health for all,” Huang said during the webinar. “The forcibly displaced need to be part of those solutions.”
According to Refugees International, there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world — and they lack basic resources and sanitation to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite the decreasing amount of aid these groups are receiving, refugees are fighting alongside health care workers on the frontlines and working in essential jobs, Huang noted.
“They are us,” she said. “How do we make sure refugees are not left behind?”
Part of this includes recognizing that traditional methods employed by developed countries to combat the coronavirus may do more harm than good in developing countries.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said lockdowns are creating unsafe conditions for several demographics: Women are more susceptible to domestic abuse or violence at home, children are not receiving a proper education or meals from schools, vaccinations are not being distributed and some families are forcing their children into marriage out of financial desperation.
It’s important to remember, Roth said, that now is the time to push for a better world that doesn’t leave its most marginalized behind — especially because despite border closures, COVID-19 ultimately transcends borders.
“We are only as safe as our neighbors,” he said during the webinar. “If we are ignoring [refugees], the virus is going to fester there and incubate there and it will spread.”
For many impoverished communities, COVID-19 is just another challenge they face on a daily basis.
“COVID has arrived and it’s just one extra issue,” said Kenneth Lavelle, deputy director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “In this case medical, but there are broader implications.”
For vulnerable populations, the repercussions of the pandemic will linger long after it is theoretically stamped out, as future generations are sure to suffer from the enduring economic and health effects that the coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated. That makes it increasingly important, Lavelle said, for governments to take action now.
“At the end of the day, we are talking about people,” Lavelle said. “What is [the pandemic] going to generate in terms of change?”
Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.