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People line up to buy face masks from a medical supply company in Nanning, southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Wednesday, January 29, 2020.   © 2020 Chinatopix via AP
(New York) – The Chinese government should ensure that human rights are protected while responding to the coronavirus outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today. As of January 29, 2020, confirmed cases of the infection, formally known as 2019-nCov, globally stood at 6,065, and the death toll at 132.

The Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was initially delayed by withholding information from the public, underreporting cases of infection, downplaying the severity of the infection, and dismissing the likelihood of transmission between humans. Since mid-January, authorities have taken a more aggressive approach, quarantining 50 million people in an effort to limit transmission from the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, where the virus originated, to the rest of China. In addition, authorities have detained people for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, curbed media reporting, and failed to ensure appropriate access to medical care for those with virus symptoms and others with medical needs.

“The coronavirus outbreak requires a swift and comprehensive response that respects human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “Authorities should recognize that censorship only fuels public distrust, and instead encourage civil society engagement and media reporting on this public health crisis.”

The first patient with onset symptoms was identified in Wuhan on December 1, 2019. Nearly a month later, on December 31, Wuhan authorities announced that there were 27 cases of an unknown type of pneumonia and alerted the World Health Organization; they identified the new virus, 2019-nCov, a week later. The first death was announced on January 11. By January 29, 2019-nCov cases had been reported in 15 countries.

Internet and Media Censorship

Since mid-December, the Chinese government has tried to control the flow of information regarding the epidemic. There is considerable misinformation on Chinese social media and authorities have legitimate reasons to counter false information that can cause public panic. But rather than rebutting false information and disseminating reliable facts, the authorities in some instances have appeared more concerned with silencing criticism.

Chinese police have detained or harassed people for allegedly “spreading rumors.” On January 1, police in Wuhan announced that they had summoned eight people for questioning for “publishing and spreading untrue information online” related to cases of pneumonia. One was a doctor at a hospital where infected patients were being treated. On December 30, he sent messages in a private WeChat group alerting them about the unknown illness. Hospital officials later warned him not to “spread rumors,” and the police forced him to sign a document stating that he would stop illegal activities and abide by the law. On January 12, the doctor was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia symptoms after treating patients, and is now in critical condition.

In recent weeks, police across China have detained dozens of people for their online posts related to the virus. On January 25, Tianjin police detained a man for 10 days for “maliciously publishing aggressive, insulting speech against medical personnel.”

Authorities have censored numerous articles and social media posts about the epidemic, including those posted by families of infected people seeking help, by people living in cordoned cities documenting their daily life, and by netizens critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. Women’s rights activist Guo Jing said she had trouble posting on Weibo and WeChat blogs on her life in cordoned Wuhan.

Authorities in various localities ordered medical personnel treating infected patients not to speak to the media. They also blocked some journalists from reporting. Government personnel escorted BBC journalists away from Henan province. Police claimed that there were “no problems” in the area and “so no need for [the journalists] to stay.”

Restrictions on Movement in Wuhan and Surrounding Areas

Since January 23, authorities have imposed travel lockdowns on Wuhan and nearby cities, effectively fencing in 56 million people. Wuhan authorities also suspended all vehicle traffic, with some exceptions, in the city center. Many residents in Wuhan expressed difficulties about access to medical care and other life necessities.

A man said on Weibo that his HIV medicine was running out but that he could not get it refilled due to the roadblocks. He sought help from the local police. Instead of helping him get the new medicine, the police informed his parents of his HIV status, which he had chosen to keep private. A man with cancer in Huanggang, a city near Wuhan also under cordon, said he was unable to purchase life-saving medicine. A pregnant woman reported that the only way she could get to see her gynecologist was by walking a long distance.

International human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified, requires that restrictions on human rights in the name of public health or a public emergency meet requirements of legality, evidence-based necessity, and proportionality. Restrictions such as quarantine or isolation of symptomatic people must, at a minimum, be provided for and carried out in accordance with the law. They must be strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate objective, the least intrusive and restrictive available to reach the objective, based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.

When quarantines are imposed, governments have absolute obligations to ensure access to food, water, and health care. After the initial cases were reported and before travelling out of the city was restricted, five million people left Wuhan, a city of 11 million, according to government statistics, suggesting that the quarantine was arbitrary and potentially discriminatory.

Rights-restricting measures should also be implemented with consideration to the public’s willingness to comply with government control efforts – especially in large-scale responses, voluntary compliance with home isolation and social distancing can be more compatible with human rights and more effective than coercive measures and harsh enforcement, which can lead individuals to avoid screening and care. However, public support requires the government to act with transparency, due process, and fairness.

Discrimination, Harassment against Hubei Residents in Other Provinces

There have been numerous reports of hotels outside of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, refusing to admit travelers with Wuhan or Hubei identification cards, of villages setting up roadblocks blocking cars with Hubei license plates from entering, and of people from Hubei being harassed on social media.

People who reside in Wuhan but are currently in other parts of the country reported that their personal information, such as their address, phone number, and ID number, were exposed online without their consent, and that they had received harassing phone calls or messages. Several Wuhan-based university students who returned to their hometowns in other provinces for the Lunar New Year holiday reported that they were being categorized as “people returning home from Wuhan” and their personal information was widely shared in online chat groups. “I am a university student in Wuhan,” a student wrote online. “I promise I will self-quarantine, please do not treat us as enemies.”

Authorities in places outside of Hubei province should prohibit discrimination and harassment against people from Hubei and ensure their equal access to housing and medical care, Human Rights Watch said.

“Violating the rights of tens of millions of people in the effort to address the coronavirus outbreak will be counterproductive,” Wang said. “Transparency and engaging civil society will be the far better approach.” 

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