In Russia there are ongoing reports of reprisals faced by healthcare workers, civil society activists and human rights defenders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some activists and whistle-blowers are being persecuted for raising concerns about the shortage of necessary equipment, lack of training, low pay or unsafe working conditions. Others – for merely trying to help.
In early March, Tatyana Revva reported her concerns to an independent trade union, the Doctors’ Alliance, and recorded a video describing the issues confronted by staff in her hospital. Her letter to the trade union and her video have since been made public. Soon after the video was made public, the hospital management took disciplinary measures against Tatyana Revva, which she claims are unfounded and target her for her criticism. According to her, within a month she received two formal reprimands and one written warning from the management, and on six occasions had to give written explanations about alleged irregularities in her work. One of the disciplinary proceedings against Tatyana Revva was launched for her purported violation of patient confidentiality. The patient in question was her father who had been admitted to the hospital’s A&E department with a suspected heart attack. Tatyana Revva visited him there and received an official reprimand on the grounds that she should have completed the patient’s record forms. Tatyana Revva maintains this was a private visit – to a family member – and she was not her father’s consulting doctor. Moreover, her father’s suspected illness was not even within her area of expertise and thus, she had nothing to do with the patient’s record in this case. Tatyana Revva mentioned this incident in a letter to the trade union and in an interview with a journalist. She did not disclose her father’s personal details or diagnosis and thus did not breach patient’s confidentiality. Nonetheless, this has become the grounds for the disciplinary proceedings against her and may lead to her dismissal.
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression for reasons of public health are permissible, however they must be clearly provided by law, and be necessary and proportionate to protect public health, and non-discriminatory. Authorities must not restrict access and dissemination of information about the health situation. They must ensure people can easily access information through the media and the internet, as well as access official information and documents that are essential for people to be able to protect themselves and comply with the public health measures taken by the government.
States must refrain from any attempts of censorship or intimidation, retaliatory actions and/or disciplinary actions targeting journalists, civil society organizations, activists, citizen reporters, health care workers or anyone else aiming to disseminate information. Imposing undue limitations on the right to freedom of expression and the ability of people to seek information would not only violate their human rights obligations, but also jeopardise the effectiveness of the public health response itself. For more information please see Eastern Europe and Central Asia confronted with COVID-19: Responses and responsibilities https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur01/2215/2020/en/.
When states’ responses to COVID-19 are based on restrictions of information, a lack of transparency and censorship, they risk undermining the rights mentioned above (see more here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol30/1967/2020/en/). They also risk making it harder for people to take adequate actions to protect themselves from infection, and for all stakeholders to obtain a realistic picture and coordinate and take effective action to combat the spread of the virus. Health workers are at the frontline of this epidemic, continuing to deliver services despite the personal risks to them and their families. The risks they face include contracting COVID-19 while doing their jobs, long working hours, psychological distress and fatigue.
While there is no official statistic in Russia on the number of medical workers who have been infected, or died, of COVID-19, media publications mention hundreds of infected healthcare staff across the country and an unofficial website (https://sites.google.com/view/covid-memory/home) lists over 600 medical workers who died fighting the pandemic. Dozens of medical professionals have complained of lack of sufficient or adequate personal protective equipment, inadequate working conditions and pay.