Human Rights Under Crisis: Wuhan Coronavirus5 min read

With the number of confirmed cases climbing above 28,000 and the official death toll at 563, Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCov) was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30 (CNN). With a global – and rapidly expanding – foothold in 25 countries, this epidemic is likely to have far-reaching consequences for international and domestic human rights. Beyond the obvious access to healthcare spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – which includes the right to access medical information and ensures against discrimination or non-consensual treatment in the provision of medical services – an epidemic poses a myriad of other human rights’ concerns. Among these are the freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary detention, and a host of other socio-economic rights (Amnesty).

            Under emergency conditions, these rights can legally be restricted, although the grounds for such restrictions must meet the principles of necessity, proportionality and legality (Amnesty). Border movement and restrictive quarantines are the first state-level measures to test these definitions. On February 5, Hong Kong announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine – applying to both residents and visitors – for entrants from mainland China (CNN). Within Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei, quarantines with varying levels of legality prevent most public movement in 12 cities (NPR). With almost no notice, the Chinese locked millions into cities, with no access to food, medicine or other essentials – a chilling reminder of the gravity in human rights’ side of this crisis.

            China’s approach, as it often has been in response to potential national embarrassments, was to first suppress all information regarding an outbreak. As early as December 2019, Wuhan doctors expressed concern over serious symptoms akin to SARs, an epidemic which originated in China in the early 2000’s (Amnesty). These concerns were suppressed by local leadership however, and the frontline doctors were harassed into silence. Once it became clear that Coronavirus was a serious threat, the communist party leadership took a rare step back, briefly passive during the onslaught of negative media on local figureheads (New York Times). However, in recent weeks, the Chinese leadership has reverted back to their more common methods of information censorship as the online and media vitriol turned towards higher-level national leaders (NYT). Activists on the ground, reporting on the current state of affairs, have been dubbed rumour-mongers and are regularly harassed (LA Times). According to a Guardian report, as recently as February 2, police were still engaged in an effort to round up and detain those spreading “rumours” regarding the epidemic (Guardian). While under the guise of cracking down on the internet proliferation of illegitimate information (a plethora of which does exist), “authorities have seemed more concerned with silencing criticism” (WHO). This past month, the Chinese government also aggressively lobbied the WHO against declaring a state of global emergency, although this attempt at international suppression ultimately failed (Amnesty).

In addition to the rights violations caused by information control, there are reports of individuals turned away from hospitals, which brings a difficult question to the surface. Under epidemic conditions, where resources are scarce and facilities are overwhelmed, at what point does lack of treatment become a violation of health rights? While there is a legitimate case to be made that China is exerting, within resource constraints, a reasonable effort to ensure this right, in light of the attitude towards – or perhaps affinity for – information suppression, as well as some legally dubious quarantine policy, China’s handling of this epidemic can only be described as ‘highly problematic” from a human rights perspective (Amnesty). 

Outside of China, the global response has also been ripe with encroachments on human rights. Discrimination and xenophobia have been rampant, with Chinese from Wuhan being denied hotel rooms, forcefully barricaded inside, and having their personal information leaked across the internet (Amnesty). In countries across the globe, strict border policies, screenings and other measures have been put in place – including discriminatory detainment for those from China and neighbouring Asian countries.  In Australia, for example, hundreds have been sent to quarantine camps on the secluded Christmas Islands – camps that were recently cited by monitoring organizations for mental and physical suffering endured by detainees (Amnesty).

Non-discriminatory clauses in international law, as well as freedom of movement statutes, make many of these quarantine practices illegal – Papua New Guinea, for example, has closed its borders to all Asian countries, regardless of health status (Amnesty). As the epidemic stretches on and further burdens the already scarce resources of border detention, other unlawful acts will undoubtedly come to light. Notably, to be lawful a quarantine must be time-bound and imposed in a safe and respectful manner. Additional rights under detention must also be respected including access to health care, food, and other necessities (Amnesty).

The key question posed above will continue to be debated as the Coronavirus epidemic spreads. To what extent are the various actors justified ­– legally, morally and medically – in their clear violations of human rights? Certainly, some measures must be taken, under the strict conditions of necessity and proportionality, to prevent the reach of this deadly virus. However, it must be made abundantly clear that human rights will not be among the casualties of the Coronavirus. Precedent for human rights is vitally important under crisis conditions; this is not the first global epidemic and it certainly will not be the last.

Works Cited

“Explainer: Seven ways the coronavirus affects human rights” Amnesty International, 5 Jan, 2020.

Griffiths, James. “Wuhan coronavirus deaths spike again as outbreak shows no signs of slowing” CNN, 6 Feb, 2020.

Feng, Emily. “The Thinking Behind China’s Quarantines And (Illegal) Village Blockades” NPR, 29 Jan, 2020.

“As China Clamps Down on Negative News, Quarantines on Land and Sea” New York Times, 5 Feb, 2020.

“Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)” World Health Organization, 30 Jan, 2020.

Su, Alice. “He filmed corpses of coronavirus victims in China. Then the police broke into his home” Los Angeles Times, 3 Feb, 2020.

Eve, Frances. “China’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak violates human rights” The Guardian, 2 Feb, 2020.

“China: Respect Rights in Coronavirus Response” Human Rights Watch, 30 Jan, 2020.

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