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China’s Neighbors Respect Rights to Combat Coronavirus

Taiwan, Hong Kong Show Benefits of Open Societies

People wearing masks, attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, February 7, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

As the coronavirus sweeps the world, some commentators are praising the Chinese government’s heavy-handed approach to the crisis and contrasting that with democratic countries’ “failure” to take strong measures.

But we should not be fooled by Chinese authorities’ trumpeting their achievement – their version of events rests at least in part on censorship and a cover-up of the outbreak. Beijing has swept under the rug the suffering of people who lacked access to medical care or other necessities as a result of strict quarantines by censoring and detaining those who decry the government’s failures and deception. And authorities are now rewriting the narrative about their role in the pandemic, and even falsely suggesting the virus did not originate in China. The World Health Organization’s needlessly lavish praise of Beijing has also helped the Chinese government whitewash its poor global image.  

Flattening the epidemic’s curve does not require authoritarian rule. In Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, the government responded rapidly, and so far, only 49 people have been reported infected. The government is monitoring individuals with COVID-19 and those exposed to them, giving people accurate information, and has set up hotlines for people to report suspected cases. Its digital minister responded to community initiatives and set up a facemask app to ensure people’s equal access to the product. The government sends “care packages” to people under quarantine, including food, masks (labelled “don’t panic, we’ve got you covered”) and support booklets.

Hong Kong, where fundamental rights have been under attack, is still a relatively open society, such that community action groups have sprung into action where policies fall short, including going so far as building a new mask factory. People have also been diligently practicing social distancing and handwashing. The densely packed city of 7 million has 134 reported cases. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong governments provide people with access to affordable public health care.

The spread of the coronavirus will test all governments and it is too early to say which will most successfully tackle it. But we should resist the urge to seek authoritarian solutions. Instead, we should endorse rights-respecting policies that promote free expression and transparency and that strive to take care of everyone with equality.

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