Guest Contributors Bodhisattwa Majumder and Devashish Giri are penultimate year students at Maharashtra Law University Mumbai. Their interests include Constitutional Law, Public International law and Maritime law. Any discussion related to the paper can be made via mail at [email protected] or [email protected]
The outbreak of Coronavirus or COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) from Wuhan, China (“People’s Republic of China “) has engulfed as many as twenty four countries across the globe with a medical emergency and has claimed more than 3,800 lives as of now.
This strain of the virus is graver than the other types of Coronaviruses as it has never been identified in humans before. Coronavirus belongs to the zoonotic group of viruses which can affect a human being with a range of health ailments ranging from the common cold to serious problems such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The World Health Organization and other countries including the US have declared it as a “Global Public Health Emergency”. In order to restrict the transmission of the virus, however, China has taken various restrictive measures which have caused serious human rights violations including but not limited to arbitrary censorships, lockdowns, quarantines, police suppression, and mass detentions.
In outbreaks of viruses with communicable properties, response time in communicating information and alerting the public and world about the dangers of the virus is of the essence. Even a delay of a month can have a huge impact; in the absence of proper information, crowded public places act as the hub for transmission.
Early on in the outbreak of Coronavirus, citizens of China were deprived of their freedom of expression and free speech. The Wuhan province was under strict observation by the Chinese government, and any information related to the outbreak was termed as mere “rumours” and prohibited from being shared across any social media platform. There were numerous reported instances of police suppression when doctors, nurses and other associated personnel working in the frontlines faced strict penal measures by the police on grounds of spreading the information related to the virus.
It was only due to a brave whistleblower, Chinese Dr. Li Wenliang, who risked his own safety and livelihood to spread news of the outbreak in Wuhan to his alumni peers via WeChat, that the world was able to learn about this dangerous phenomenon that China had tried to keep under wraps. He sent his message on December 30, and China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about its outbreak on December 31. Since January 1, researchers have learned that China has been censoring WeChat accounts for words related to the Cornonavirus, blocking certain combinations or anything negative towards President Xi Jinping. Furthermore, China placed the entire affected province under lockdown without any prior notice, which deprived the residents any chance to ensure the availability of basic amenities of life such as food and medicine. Such a measure has affected vulnerable populations of society, including those with disabilities, illness, and the elderly and deprived them of their essential needs. These are direct violations to their right to health. There has been a mass-quarantine process of millions of people for the cause of limiting the spread from the city of Wuhan. Any offering measure by any section of society be it, Lawyers, Activists or Artists, has been prohibited, censored, threatened and harassed by the organs of the government. Despite having strict regulations against discrimination regarding communicable diseases, the machinery has apparently failed.
Coronavirus has not limited itself to Chinese province and other South-East Asian states have been affected, although not every state has adopted measures which violate human rights. Amidst the Chaos, the approach of Singapore has been a silver lining, which has won praises for its benevolence and informative approach rather than an authoritarian one. Singapore’s approach has been direct and effective to reduce panic, rumours and conspiracy theories, aligning itself correctly with the statement of the Prime Minister which was posted on social media in three languages, “Fear can do more harm than the virus itself”. The speech alone was proven effective as the following weekend witnessed a reduction in crowds in the city-state. The Singaporean approach included prevention, contact tracing, quarantine and access to information. Singapore’s official website of the Ministry of Communications and Information provided useful and practical advisories on topics such as ‘When to See a Doctor’, ‘What happens to suspect cases’ and ‘How to practice good personal hygiene’. The approach of Singapore prioritized the welfare and safety of citizens over political stability and economic costs, which won praise across the world. Singapore was among the most affected regions of Asia (Orange alert). Still, it chose to inform its citizens rather than bury the situation. The constant live news coverage, transparency about developments, and inclusion of health workers in planning has proved to be effective in controlling the situation and reducing panic among citizens.
Public International Law dictates that regardless of a health emergency or an epidemic, the measures taken to affect human rights should be legal, necessary, reasonable and proportional. Every measure must be recorded in evidence and there should be strict adherence to the procedure prescribed. An undemocratic regime leaves no scope for a consequence to the state for failures in terms of epidemic response and as a result, there is no accountability from the state. The people residing in affected areas are shunned out without any scope for the expression of dissent or discontent or even a cry for help from the international community. Human rights cannot be allowed to be violated under the garb of a health emergency and every nation should take a lesson from the incident of the Coronavirus outbreak. The priority of taking measures to restrict the outbreak lies in equal pedestal with the significance of following due process without depriving the people of their human rights. The international community needs to take a stand, and every response from a government during the outbreak of an epidemic or a pandemic must be within the four corners of human rights.