Minority groups and marginalized communities in South Asia are particularly at risk during the novel coronavirus pandemic, a group of human rights organizations have warned in a report published on Wednesday.

The South Asia Collective’s (SAC) annual flagship report said the pandemic came at a time of “rising majoritarian nationalism” as minorities in the region face “sustained assaults” by governments.

The South Asia State of Minorities Report 2019 said that vulnerable communities, among them religious minorities, continued to be “denied official refugee or minority status” due to discriminatory laws in six countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

This leaves them deprived of essential rights and services and even more exposed to the worst impacts of the pandemic, explained a press release by Minority Rights Group International (MRG), one of the members of the SAC.

More than 1,500 people have died and over 50,000 have been infected in South Asia so far, with numbers rising by the day.

“While the virus has the potency to kill, poor governance choices can weaponize this potency,” said MRG Executive Director Joshua Castellino.

“Stirring hate and attributing blame underscores two things: an inability of effective governance in solving a grave problem without playing blame games; and the real possibility that the life of the virus will be prolonged if left lurking amidst the most vulnerable communities.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Dr. Fernand de Varennes observed that minorities in South Asia faced many “discriminatory exclusions and restrictions in relationship to citizenship.”

He said these groups were denied “rights and access to basic services including […] access to health care and information in their own languages during the pandemic crisis.”

On the overall state of minorities in countries across South Asia, the report noted that majoritarian nationalism and divisive rhetoric were “on the march, animating hate speech and targeted violence against minorities.” It warned that the situation was “likely to be further exacerbated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It urged all South Asian nations to follow UN conventions to protect vulnerable refugee populations, advising them to enforce anti-discrimination laws and repeal discriminatory laws.

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