We’re all in this together, virtually

Marjan Greenblatt

May 12, 2020, 3:03 p.m.

The mantra has been ubiquitous across communities in quarantine—stay home to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. Although we’re isolated and confined to our own quarters, we share a sense of common suffering. A proverbial condition of infection and affliction is sensed on the international scale and reminds us, for good or bad, we are all in this together.  
The shared struggle and the opportunity for introspection have kindled a sense of altruism among many. Volunteerism is proving to be a convenient way to pass time while also generating fulfilment while many have lost their jobs and by extension their sense of purpose.  
Although select volunteers are able to venture out to deliver food and essentials to the elderly and immunocompromised individuals, most of us are confined to our homes and are advised to avoid outside interactions. However, virtual volunteering is emerging as a popular activity and a valuable alternative to in-person services, creating mutually fulfilling experiences for volunteers and service recipients.   
While in free societies, large volunteer platforms are connecting tutors with kids and virtual companions for the sick and the elderly, human rights activists and dissidents in closed societies lack access to support and advocacy. They’re not “in this together;” they’re neglected and at risk. Many prisoners of conscience in repressive countries, such as Iran, have already endured deplorable prison conditions, many have been subject to psychological and physical torture. They now they face an escalated risk of contracting the virus in a poverty-stricken, mismanaged system where medical resources have been stretched to the limit.   
Separation, isolation and loneliness are not put into effect to ‘protect’ prisoners of conscience, but rather to punish them for their commitment to promote freedom, equal rights, and democracy. The “judicial systems” that have sown their fate behind bars are mere systems of revenge not rehabilitation. As a result, prisoners of conscience, like Narges Mohammadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Zainab Jailani, and many others who have already suffered the pain and humiliation of Iranian prisons are now likely exposed to the Coronavirus in crowded jail cells where basic sanitary needs are habitually neglected. Despite multiple requests for the temporary release of prisoners of conscience amid the pandemic, the authorities have insisted on the status-quo, keeping life as usual in the prisons. 

Preoccupation with the coronavirus and quarantine has created conditions that can further degrade human rights conditions. While the public and the international community are focused on individual and national survival, the oppressive regimes have turned the dial on their human rights violations. Just last month, Chinese authorities arrested at least a dozen of the most prominent pro-democracy activists.  
Around the same time in Iran, the government executed Kurdish prisoners, including several juvenile offenders. Journalists and activists are not sufficiently covering these stories for various reasons, and diaspora media is covering COVID19 development. The situation enables the authoritarian regimes to face little or no scrutiny for their actions. 
Human rights activists and journalists have increasingly limited access to the eyewitnesses of the human rights violations. Private conversations are less frequent and relegated to online and telephone conversations, that are often monitored by cyber police, presenting an elevated risk to communicators.  
In this state of distraction and distress, we can not turn a blind eye to the violations of rights of innocent people. Being “in this together” compels us to extend a virtual helping hand to the ones whose voices are even more repressed, whose rights are even further violated and whose lives are even at more risk. Those are the ones behind bars, the ones on death row, and the ones anticipating arrest because of a blogpost or a tweet.

It is thanks to activists like Shiva Mahbobi that the plight of prisoners of conscience remains in public discourse. Utilizing social media, online petition tools, and platforms such as Movements, Mahbobi who is the spokesperson the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran (CFPPI) reaches international audiences to raise their awareness about human rights violations in Iran and to garner support for prisoners of conscience. The multiplier effect of social media, combined with her own passion and dedication, has spread the call for freedom of political prisoners to millions of people around the world. Organization which due to the pandemic had to switch its annual conference in Toronto to a virtual event, by-and-large relies on online communication methods for its operations. Mahbobi hopes that her virtual activism will strengthen international solidarity for people in Iran and their fight for freedom [and] to mobilize concerned organizations and individuals around the world to pressurize the regime in Iran to release political prisoners and to stop the harassment, imprisonment, and torture of activists in Iran and to stop the death penalty.” 
Movements presents opportunities to support human rights activists at any level. In this atmosphere of despair, any level of help and support can amplify a sense of hope- maybe even improve a life. Volunteers from anywhere in the world can connect with activists in need and help within a scope that fits their skills and interests. Writers, translators, artists, counselors or just people with a voice on social media can help someone in another country by writing an article, engaging an audience in a different language, tweeting a message of support, or just being an ally.  
So next time you hear, “we’re in this together,” ask yourself, who will you stand by? 
Here are some immediate action steps: 


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