Abusive Covid-19 Measures in Northern Province: Argentina

Human Rights Watch

Authorities in Argentina‘s northern province of Formosa have employed often abusive and unsanitary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University’s centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said today. Provincial authorities have also limited journalists’ ability to cover the situation in Formosa, allegedly used excessive force against those protesting the Covid-19 measures, and, for months, severely restricted the ability of people from the city of Clorinda to leave their city and get health care.

Over 24,000 people have been held in mandatory isolation and quarantine centers in Formosa since April 2020, many for more than the 14 days recommended by the World Health Organization, and in many cases under circumstances that amount to arbitrary detention. Formosa authorities have held some people who tested positive with others who tested negative or were still waiting for their test results. The centers have at times been overcrowded and unsanitary, making social distancing difficult. Some lacked proper ventilation, and the authorities have at times failed to provide proper medical care to people in the centers.

“Unsanitary and crowded centers like those in Formosa can cause the virus to spread, undermine basic human rights, and erode the trust in public health authorities that is critical for a successful Covid-19 response,” said Dr. Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University centers. “Isolating entire cities can cause more problems than benefits for people’s health in the long term.”

Between January and March 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 people in Formosa by phone, including 30 who were in isolation or quarantine centers, as well as doctors, lawyers, victims of police abuse, journalists, a legislator, and two councilwomen. Most fear reprisals in Formosa and spoke on condition that their names and other identifying information would be withheld. Some said they were government employees and feared they would lose their jobs. This publication is also based on official information provided by the Formosa provincial government and the national Human Rights Secretary’s Office.

Under Formosa province’s Covid-19 rules, people entering the province, regardless of whether they had been exposed to Covid-19, and those who have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive, were sent to quarantine centers, known as “preventive accommodation centers.” Isolation centers, known as “health attention centers,” were created for those who tested positive and have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. People held in these centers may not leave, are generally under constant police surveillance, and in some cases have been locked into their rooms.

Formosa authorities have often failed to comply with their own protocols. While conditions in isolation and quarantine centers vary, most interviewees described them as unsanitary and overcrowded. In some quarantine centers, people shared rooms and common spaces, including bathrooms. Authorities also mixed people arriving on different dates in the same rooms and did not take into consideration their age, gender, health conditions, and other risk factors. They also placed people who tested positive with others who tested negative or were still waiting for their results. Formosa’s government says that doctors and nurses are permanently stationed at quarantine and isolation centers, but interviewees said they had limited access to timely and proper health care.

These failures, together with conditions at the centers and excessive stays, have most likely contributed to the spread of Covid-19 and violated the right to health of those being held, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University centers said.

In January, after a significant uptick in confirmed Covid-19 cases, the government significantly increased the number of people held in quarantine and isolation centers, with many reporting abuse.

Zunilda Gómez, 33, was three months pregnant with her fourth child when, on December 19, police took her family from their home in Clorinda. The authorities locked Gomez and her children, ages 12, 8, and 5, in a hotel room. On January 5, Gómez started bleeding, and called for help. Desperate, she had her daughter climb out the window to seek help, she said.

After an hour, police took Gómez to a hospital, leaving her children locked in the hotel room alone until the next day. Gómez had a miscarriage. Her husband, who had been moved to an isolation center 75 miles away after testing positive, only learned of the miscarriage when a family member called him.

On January 27 and 28, 2021, the National Human Rights Secretary, Horacio Pietragalla, who reports to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, visited Formosa to review allegations of abuse.

The Formosa government introduced additional quarantine and isolation protocols after the visit, following also several media reports and lawsuits. The Formosa government additionally closed some of the centers. On February 3, the Formosa authorities introduced new protocols to allow some families with children, people over 60, and people with prior health conditions to quarantine at home.

“The new protocols in Formosa are a positive step, but protocols that look good on paper will not work if they are not adequately implemented,” Page said.

Even after Formosa adopted the additional protocols, some people in the excepted categories were sent to quarantine centers, apparently because their homes did not meet the new protocols’ “environmental and social requirements,” such as having private bathrooms for infected people and adequate ventilation. At the centers, they were, at times, exposed to worse conditions than they probably would have been exposed to at home. Even though overcrowding has been reduced and some centers are closing, Human Rights Watch has received complaints about unsanitary conditions and limited access to health care in some centers after the February protocols were adopted.

On March 19, a federal judge ordered the Formosa authorities to end the mandatory quarantine for people entering the province with a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Formosa authorities appealed the decision, but adopted a new protocol on March 22 complying with the court order. Media reports indicate people have started traveling to and from the province.

Between August 2020 and March 2021, Formosa authorities enforced a “sanitary blockade” on the city of Clorinda, suspending public transportation to that city and requiring anyone who intends to leave to present a negative Covid-19 test and obtain police authorization. This seriously undermined the ability of people in Clorinda to access health care.

Authorities in Formosa have also limited journalists’ ability to report about the situation in the province, allegedly used excessive force against people who protested the Covid-19 regulations, and arrested and brought criminal charges against some of them.

Under international law, certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency, such as the right to be free from ill-treatment. Restrictions on many other rights, including rights to liberty, freedom of movement, expression, and association, may be permissible during a public health emergency like a pandemic but must have a clear legal basis, be strictly necessary and proportionate to the public health aim, of limited duration, subject to review, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. Argentine authorities also have an obligation to take effective steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect people’s right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Mandatory quarantine that increases people’s risk of exposure to the coronavirus does not serve the purpose of protecting the population from Covid-19 and may amount to arbitrary detention under international human rights law as being an unnecessary limitation on liberty, Human Rights Watch said.

“Covid-19 measures should help protect people, not put them in greater danger,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The national government should work with provincial authorities to periodically verify that is respecting human rights as it responds to Covid-19, including by limiting the use of police forces to conduct contact tracing.”

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