WHO is concerned about Human Rights during the novel coronavirus epidemic?
By Pippa Davis
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken 2,711 lives in China with 80,419 infections reported and the number growing, domestically and internationally, every day. Such statistics are at the forefront of every news site, but the issues being overlooked are those of human rights – for those infected and for those not. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, consists of 30 articles affirming an individual’s rights. The World Health Organisation states that human rights should not be casualty to the coronavirus, however China has made their disregard for such rights apparent through Document No 9, in 2013. This internal Communist party edict refers to “universal values” of human rights, civil rights, and freedom of press as “infiltrations” that should be handled with “renewed vigilance.” However, the WHO is not faultless, as reports say “The WHO has been unceasingly lavishing praise on China, but the reality is that the government’s response was – and remains – highly problematic.”
Article 12: The right to health, as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides the right to access healthcare, the right to access information…
From the beginning China has prioritised upholding pretences of control and stability above honesty and transparency, denying the existence of the virus for weeks to the detriment of their own people’s health. The first case of COVID-19 was recorded on December 8th, with existing reports of even earlier cases, yet the virus wasn’t confirmed until December 30th. Even upon confirmation of its existence, the Wuhan Health Commission sent a directive prohibiting doctors from disclosing any information about the outbreak to the public. Whilst it is reasonable in some situations to withhold certain information from the public as a preventative measure against mass panic, China’s objective was to maintain appearances.
Gao Fei, a migrant worker who left Hubei province last year, only learned of the existence of the virus after breaching China’s firewall and reading western news. Fei also reported that many doctors have coronavirus symptoms but remain working, with ambulance services having a waiting list of 700 people. While State news channels broadcast stories celebrating China’s swift construction of new hospitals and factories built solely to produce masks, Wei Peng, a doctor in his 40s at a community hospital in Wuhan revealed that the states infection statistics are “definitely not reliable” with patients ignored, and shortages of doctors, hospital beds, and masks. Local media reported that people are unable to get to hospitals quickly because of a public transportation shutdown and, in some cases, unable to remove bodies of the deceased from their homes. Most recently, the government confirmed a further 254 previously unreported deaths, due to a sudden methodology change where coronavirus victims diagnosed via CT scans were now included, whereas previously only those diagnosed via testing kits were counted. Victor Shih, a specialist in Chinese politics at University of California San Diego said, “The adjustment of the data today proved without doubt that they have had two sets of numbers for confirmed infected all along.” Such emphasis on maintaining an image of a nation in control is being enforced at the expense of the right to basic healthcare for Chinese citizens.
Article 19: The right to freedom of opinion and expressions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.
Not only do the Chinese Government withhold information, the authorities also deny citizens their basic right to freedom of expression. The now infamous whistle-blower, doctor Li Wenliang was detained for “spreading rumours”after posting about the virus on January 1st and was forced to sign a confession that he made “untrue statements”. Business publication, Caijing, reported on the “uncounted people” who had died without being tested, information that was wiped off the internet within days. “Citizen journalism”, an emerging method of broadcasting the reality of censored situations, has severe consequences. Gao Fei was arrested for tweeting that President Xi Jinping should resign over the government’s handling of the virus. Fang Bin, a clothes seller turned social media activist, posted videos of public hospitals in Wuhan with eight corpses spotted in the first few minutes, exposing his nation’s mishandling of the situation. He was then arrested by authorities pretending to be doctors that wanted to quarantine him. Recently, the Chinese government has announced new penalties for “spreading rumours”about the virus outbreak allowing them to detain more than 300 Chinese citizens, leading to countless fines and arrests.
The recent death of Dr Li Wenliang has aroused anger across China at the actions of their government with the trending topic, “We Want Freedom of Speech”, attracting vast support with links to “Do You Hear the People Sing”, a song popularised in recent protests. Both were immediately taken down by the police.
Article 9: No one is subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.
Quarantines, which restrict humans’ right to freedom of movement, are justified under international law only in instances when strictly necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory. The Chinese government’s implantation of “war-time measures” – resulting in 760 million Chinese in some form of home lock down – are neither proportionate nor necessary and were imposed without any evidence to support the effectiveness of such measures.
The largest concentration of people infected with coronavirus outside of mainland China is located on a ship. It is reminiscent of the Black Death victims in 14th Century, who were commonly sequestered on ships for months as no countries would allow them entry. The Diamond Princess has lived up to the reputation of cruise ships being “floating petri dishes”: at the start of quarantine only 10 occupants tested positive for coronavirus, yet two weeks later more than 690 people were infected and two had died. Instead of treating 10 victims in a hospital, thousands of occupants and staff were subjected to psychological distress and constant fear of infection. Families were trapped in 160 square feet rooms. Dr. Amesh Adalja, with the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, said, “The quarantine was not justified, and violated the individual rights of the passengers while allowing the virus to literally pick them off one-by-one.”
Similar instances of inhumane treatment come from the Australian government who are detaining their own citizens in a former prison on Christmas Island. The Australian Medical Association was not consulted and are currently looking for a “more humane” solution for the group of already vulnerable and scared Australians quarantined in the Immigration Detention Centre, according to its head, Dr Tony Bartone. President of the island, Gordon Thomson, found out about the detainment via the news and deemed it “regressive colonialist treatment” worrying that the tourism industry will cease due to the media labelling it “Virus Island.” Severino, an Australian living in Wuhan, has supported the idea of quarantine, but said putting citizens “behind bars” was not acceptable and definitely violates the “just” part of detention. There were also reports the government planned to charge the citizens $1.000 AUD for the flight to Christmas island, which have been refuted.
Both regressive approaches are reminiscent of The Trolley thought experiment – is it better to allow those infected to return to society for treatment, at risk of the virus spreading naturally, or to contain the virus on the ship, condemning a fixed number of occupants to infection and harm?
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life or some pain!” – William Blake.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour etc.
The conduct of some of the USA’s top institutions, where Chinese students are pushed to self-quarantine despite a lack of symptoms, has led to a noticeable increase in xenophobia. Sylvia Su, a student at New York’s Barnard College, has been quarantined to her dormitory room for two weeks; her only excursions are to the communal bathroom, for which she was reprimanded. Many oppose “self-quarantines” as there is no scientific evidence to support its effectiveness as its stringent changes from case to case. Su, when commenting on the xenophobia she experienced, said, “personally, I feel like I’ve been told I deserve this.”
Regrettably, Barnard is not alone in mishandling their response to the virus outbreak, as University of California, Berkeley posted a list of “common reactions”to the virus which included xenophobia, seemingly suggesting that such racism was acceptable and normal in light of current situations. Xenophobia is even occurring in China as those from Wuhan are being denied access to hotels and shops and have had their personal information leaked online. Asian communities across the world are fighting back, with the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus) trending in France.
As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And we should know better; fear is no reason to forget humanity.