The Criminalization of a Pandemic: A Cross-Regional Feminist Analysis

In March 2020, as the world struggled to address the rising spread and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vecinas Feministas por la Justicia Sexual y Reproductiva en América Latina and RESURJ began the process of building a feminist mapping and analysis of the myriad of measures adopted across the world to halt the spread of COVID-19. The impetus for this emerged from our concerns on observing a worrisome trend of governments turning to punitive and criminalization measures in the name of public health. We used a multi-method approach that combined a survey, qualitative interviews with key informants, and a desk review of media coverage.

Vecinas Feministas and RESURJ co-developed a survey which sought to collect information on the various containment efforts applied around the world, and to understand the use of criminalizing measures in the context of COVID-19 in various regions. This mapping effort also recognized the many health, social, economic, and governance challenges that were arising, and that existing inequalities were being unveiled and exacerbated with devastating impact on historically marginalized groups. The survey intended to capture the different health and sanitary measures, such as social distancing, isolation, curfew and quarantine, to prevent COVID-19 as well as provide evidence to analyze their impacts on particular groups and communities. This is closely linked to RESURJ and Vecinas Feministas’ commitment to analyze the limitations of criminalization and punitive responses as tools to address social challenges.

While our research shows regional differences, there are various cross-cutting key trends in the ways in which governments have confronted the pandemic. Of note is the tendency towards the use of criminal, punitive, and penal measures and restrictions related to social contact, exposure, transmission, movement–including travel and curfew–and the use of masks amongst many others, as a way to address the pandemic. The disproportionate use of measures, often against the most marginalized communities, for failing to comply with sanitary orders is also present across the regions.

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