MEXICO CITY – Amnesty International said in a new report published on Monday that authorities in Venezuela, El Salvador and Paraguay have held thousands of people in inadequate state-run quarantine centers, calling the use of those facilities a “form of repression.”
The London-based human rights watchdog characterized the conditions at the centers as “appalling” and said they could be “counterproductive spaces” where people are at risk of contracting COVID-19.
In the report, titled “When protection becomes repression: Mandatory quarantines under COVID-19 in the Americas,” AI documented at least 90,000 mandatory quarantines of Venezuelans by the end of August.
The rights watchdog noted that El Salvador and Paraguay had largely closed their state-run quarantine centers, or reduced the scale of those facilities, by the end of last month.
But it said 16,000 people had been quarantined in El Salvador, including those accused of violating mandatory national lockdown orders, people returning from abroad and those suspected of having been in contact with anyone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
AI said a total of 8,000 people had been mandatorily quarantined in Paraguay as of late June.
The organization identified the majority of the detainees as migrants, refugees, people returning to their countries of origin and low-income communities.
AI said the conditions in the state-run quarantine centers have often been unsanitary and sometimes inhumane.
“This report is based on the number of complaints we received from those countries about forced confinement policies being converted into punitive measures,” AI’s Americas director, Erika Guevara Rosas, told EFE.
Many of those placed in quarantine centers in Venezuela have been citizens who returned home after being left jobless and homeless in Colombia and Peru, according to the rights organization, while those confined in Paraguay were mainly people who returned to their homeland after losing their jobs in Brazil’s informal sector due to the pandemic-triggered lockdowns.
Although El Salvador and Paraguay closed those centers when COVID-19 cases declined, Guevara said they remain in operation in Venezuela and that other countries may be tempted to employ that tactic in response to a resurgence of infections.
AI, which based its reports on footage from several videos, said the quarantine centers have included sport stadiums, military facilities and warehouses that have often been unsanitary and places where there was a failure to provide adequate medical care.
“There are people who have been confined for more than 30 days when WHO (World Health Organization) regulations say the confinement should not exceed 15 days,” Guevara Rosas said.
People suspected of having the coronavirus have been mixed in with people who are not COVID-19 positive, according to Guevara Rosas, who said the detainees therefore “run the risk of infection.”
In the report published on Monday, AI noted that Venezuela and El Salvador in particular “have converted a public health intervention into a punitive response, disproportionately impacting low-income communities and refugees and migrants returning to their countries of origin.”
It cited as an example an announcement in early April by Salvadoran Justice and Security Minister Rogelio Rivas, who said that individuals who failed to comply with stay-at-home orders would be “taken to a quarantine center far from their families.”
In an admission of the lack of appropriate standards to prevent contagion, he even warned that those detained in those centers would “run the risk of contracting the virus.”
AI spoke to one Salvadoran woman, Ana Cristina, who was a victim of this policy.
“I’d like to forget all this, but I can’t,” she told the human rights watchdog about having spent 40 days sleeping on a dirty mattress on the floor in a quarantine facility after having been caught buying groceries and medicine in violation of a national lockdown order.
Besides the inhumane conditions, Guevara Rosas also highlighted the “stigmatization” of people who have spent time in these quarantine centers.
For example, even as Venezuela required all people returning to the country from abroad to be placed in those facilities, senior members of the Nicolas Maduro’s regime referred to refugees returning to their homeland from Colombia as “biological weapons” sent by that neighboring country to infect people living in Venezuela.
Although Guevara Rosas said governments have the right to restrict people’s movement to fight the coronavirus, she said the measures adopted in Venezuela, El Salvador and Paraguay have bordered on repressive.
“In these three countries, we can talk about arbitrary detentions because in many cases the people were not even told why they were being detained,” AI’s Americas director said.
The role of the security forces has been particularly controversial considering that people detained by police have leveled allegations of abuse and mistreatment.
AI therefore said that in imposing stay-at-home orders governments must consider the needs of millions of poor people who work in the informal economy and must leave their homes to survive.
“Our recommendation is that they avoid coercive measures and focus on voluntary confinement measures based on the context of the region and its enormous inequalities,” Guevara Rosas said.