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The United Nations Organisations have called for appropriate public health measures for people in prisons and closed settings as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

This was contained in a statement issued by the leaders of World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS), The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), on Wednesday.

The statement was jointly signed by the Executive Director of UNODC, Ghada Waly; the Director-General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus; the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima; and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

The leaders, in the statement, drew the attention of political leaders to the heightened vulnerability of prisoners and other people deprived of liberty to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It urged them to take all appropriate public health measures in respect of this vulnerable population that is part of our communities.

“Acknowledging that the risk of introducing COVID-19 into prisons or other places of detention varies from country to country, we emphasize the need to minimize the occurrence of the disease in these settings and to guarantee that adequate preventive measures are in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach and preventing large outbreaks of COVID-19,” it said.

The statement emphasised on the need to establish an up-to-date coordination system that brings together health and justice sectors and keeps prison staff well-informed and guarantees that all human rights in these settings are respected.

Older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety, and women were advised to be given special consideration.

“A swift and firm response aimed at ensuring healthy and safe custody, and reducing overcrowding, is essential to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 entering and spreading in prisons and other places of deprivation of liberty,” it said.

In unison, they said increasing cleanliness and hygiene in places of deprivation of liberty is paramount in order to prevent the entry of, or to limit the spread of, the virus.

“Compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres, where people suspected of using drugs or engaging in sex work are detained, without due process, in the name of treatment or rehabilitation should be closed,” it added.

There is no evidence that such centres are effective in the treatment of drug dependence or rehabilitation of people and the detention of people in such facilities raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, increasing the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks.

No discrimination

According to the statement, the leaders said there must be no discrimination on the basis of the legal or any other status of people deprived of their liberty.

“Health care in prisons, including preventive, supportive and curative care, should be of the highest quality possible, at least equivalent to that provided in the community,” it said.

The statement highlighted that priority responses to COVID-19 currently implemented in the community, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing, are often severely restricted or not possible in closed settings.

It said prison populations have an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis B and C, compared to the general population.

“The rate of infection of diseases in such a confined population is also higher than among the general population.”

Beyond the normal infectivity of the COVID-19 pandemic, people with substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis and TB may be at increased risk of complications from COVID-19.

“Authorities must ensure uninterrupted access and flow of quality health commodities to prisons and other places of detention,” they demanded.

Adherence to rules and guidance

“We urge political leaders to ensure that COVID-19 preparedness and responses in closed settings are identified and implemented in line with fundamental human rights, are guided by WHO guidance and recommendations and never amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the statement highlighted.

In prisons, the health leaders advised that any intervention should comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

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People deprived of their liberty exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or who have tested positive should be monitored and treated in line with the most recent WHO guidelines and recommendations.

Prisons and other places of detention must be part of national COVID-19 plans with dedicated participation of the affected population.

“All cases of COVID-19 in closed settings should be notified to responsible public health authorities, who will then report to national and international authorities,” the statement highlighted.

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