Unhealthy silence

Since the beginning of the pandemic, health workers, journalists, human rights defenders and other frontline workers have courageously criticized, scrutinized and reported on the inadequate responses to COVID-19. For doing so, many of them have been threatened, attacked or arrested.

Development banks have played a crucial role in funding and shaping the responses to the pandemic, providing more than 150 billions of dollars. However, they have failed in taking concrete actions to ensure that - in the context of the COVID-19 response they were supporting - people could freely and safely express their opinions and raise their concerns. When cases of retaliations occurred, they stayed silent.

The report Unhealthy silence: Development banks’ inaction on retaliation during COVID-19, published on July 27, 2021 by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, ARTICLE 19 and IFEX, presents eight emblematic case studies of reprisals and statistical analysis of 335 cases of people attacked for speaking up around COVID-19 responses. The report also shows how development banks have failed to uphold their own commitments and presents a set of recommendations to address reprisals.


  • Journalists, human rights defenders, health workers and ordinary citizens have been criminalized or attacked for speaking out about aspects of the COVID-19 response directly financed by development banks.
  • As of June 15, 2021, IFIs have earmarked US$ 150.54 billion to finance responses to COVID-19, through 1,332 projects. Many projects supported by IFIs have included awareness-raising about COVID-19 as a key component. However, in many of those same countries, people who provide information about the pandemic or speak about the spread of the virus have been strongly repressed.
  • At least 335 people suffered reprisals, in a total of 35 countries that received or are receiving financial support for their COVID-19 response.
  • In the vast majority of cases (affecting 233 people), the retaliation consisted of some type of criminalization, arrest or prison sentence; 56 people suffered physical abuse or torture; at least 13 people, almost all health personnel, were dismissed; 17 people were threatened; 6 people were killed.
  • Most reprisals have occurred in a general context of strong restrictions on civic freedoms and the active persecution of dissenting voices. 
  • Development banks did not fulfil their commitments and failed to take decisive action and adopt concrete measures to prevent and address reprisals.
  • COVID-19 response projects were approved even after reprisals had taken place. Project documents show that banks have not carried out a prior assessment of the human rights situation with regard to freedom of expression, that would have easily revealed the difficulties and obstacles to participation.
  • When civil society organizations (CSOs) raised their concerns about serious restrictions on freedom of expression in countries that received funding to respond to the pandemic, the responses from the banks failed to address the points that had been raised, including when there was clear evidence that the retaliation related directly to the banks’ projects.
  • Restrictions on freedom of expression directly affect the quality and effectiveness of the response to COVID-19 that banks seek to support, and create issues of non-compliance with the banks’ own policies of public participation and stakeholder engagement. 
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