Human Rights Issues Arise as COVID-19 Spreads Globally5 min read

    A rising concern across the globe includes the right to health as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads throughout the world. This issue has become especially prevalent in China after tens of millions of citizens were placed under quarantine (Wang). Stories of individuals being unable to access medication or receiving aid from caregivers point to the harsh realities of the circumstances in large urban areas in China. Censorship in the country limits information given about the situation but emerging stories tell us how ones rights to health have become limited during the quarantine in places like Wuhan (Wang).

              One of the most disturbing stories includes a disabled child who died after his father, who was also his primary caregiver, was placed in quarantine (BBC). The child, named Yan Cheng, was left without food and water while his father and brother were unable to care for him after being placed at a medical facility(BI). He could not care for himself as his cerebral palsy limited his movement (BI). Unfortunately, lack of aid from authorities likely led to his death earlier this year.

              A state could declare a public emergency given the severity of COVID-19. Wuhan, the city where the virus emerged, is no longer under lockdown after 76 days of city-wide quarantine (BBC). However, this success may have come at the cost of the neglection of rights. The ICCPR indicates the right to life as being one of the few rights a state cannot neglect during a state of emergency. The ICESCR states in article 12 that states must recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, the group monitoring the ICESCR, points to factors such as adequate nutrition and housing, safe drinking water, and healthy working and environmental conditions among the rights that citizens have regarding health (UNHCR, 3). China is a signee of the ICCPR and ICESCR and has ratified the second listed document, obliging it to recognize rights to health even during state emergencies. Failing to recognize the rights to health of citizens like Cheng puts them in potential danger or in the worst cases, can lead to death.

              One should clarify that the right to health does not mean the right to be healthy (UNHCR, 5). The term “healthy” can possess different meanings in a variety of contexts. Plus, an individuals’ biological make-up and state socio-economic conditions can impact the healthiness of an individual (UNHCR, 5). An individual who dies during the COVOID-19 pandemic due to pre-existing conditions rather than inadequate care would not lead to a state neglecting their right to health.

              A state’s financial capacities, however, do not allow it to avoid obligations to the right to health of citizens (UNHCR, 5). States must allow for the maximum of their available resources be contributed to the guarantee this right (UNHCR, 5). This obligation varies amongst countries, but the overall obligation remains integral to every state. However, this requirement might be tested globally as the capacity of healthcare services become strained. The number of infected individuals continues to rise, pressuring the capacity of hospitals in economically strong states like the US (NY Times). The current situation will test all states in their ability to uphold the rights to health of individuals while attempting to slow the spread of COVOID-19.

              How can states protect their citizens against a global pandemic while also recognizing their rights to health? States will attempt to answer the first part of the question by introducing lockdowns and quarantining citizens. However, the second part of this question will be much more difficult to answer. Strict regulations like those in Wuhan could have other costs despite preventing the spread of the virus. Limiting the movement of people could leave citizens without the services they need to survive. States should create plans to ensure the rights of disabled peoples during this crisis, as they are some of the most vulnerable people currently. A balance of restriction and upholding of these rights will need to be accomplished.

              Cheng’s case also indicates another issue regarding accountability. Authorities involved in this situation will likely not be held accountable in this situation. Perhaps similar situations will occur in some of the more restrictive states. Human rights in general might be less recognized as states initiate a state of emergency globally.


Avenue, Human Rights Watch |. 350 Fifth, et al. “The Human Toll of China’s Coronavirus Control Efforts.” Human Rights Watch, 12 Mar. 2020.,

“Disabled Boy Dies in China after Father Quarantined.” BBC News, 3 Feb. 2020.,

Factsheet31.Pdf. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

OHCHR | International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

Sudworth, John. “A Dazed City Emerges from the Harshest of Lockdowns.” BBC News, 8 Apr. 2020.,

Zhong, Raymond, and Vivian Wang. “China Ends Wuhan Lockdown, but Normal Life Is a Distant Dream.” The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2020.,

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