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China: Human rights violations amid coronavirus outbreak

The World Health Organisation declared the new coronavirus a global emergency on 30 January as the outbreak has continued to spread outside China. At least 213 people in China have died from the virus, mostly in Wuhan and the Hubei province, with almost 10,000 cases confirmed nationally. The WHO said there had been 98 cases in 18 other countries, but no deaths. On 31 January, the first two coronavirus cases were confirmed in the UK.

On 30 January, Human Rights Watch emphasised the need for China to ensure that human rights are protected while responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

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

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.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, police across China have detained dozens of people for their online posts related to the virus in recent weeks. One was a doctor at a hospital where infected patients were being treated. On 30 December, he sent messages in a private WeChat group alerting his colleagues about the unknown illness. Police forced him to sign a document stating that he would stop illegal activities and abide by the law. On 12 January, the doctor was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia symptoms after treating patients, and is now in critical condition.

“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.”

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 individuals critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. They have also blocked some journalists from reporting. Government personnel escorted BBC’s China Correspondent Stephen McDonell away from Henan province. Police claimed that there were “no problems” in the area and “so no need for [the journalists] to stay.”

“The authorities are sending a signal, which is that only the government agencies can talk about the epidemic,” Yu Ping, a former Southern Metropolis Daily reporter, wrote on his personal blog according to the New York Times. “All other people should just shut up. It’s not public disclosure,” Mr. Yu added. “It’s a naked information monopoly.”

Since 23 January, 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 and many residents in Wuhan have expressed difficulties about access to medical care and other life necessities. According to HRW, a man said on Weibo that his HIV medicine was running out but that he could not get it refilled due to the roadblocks.

Meanwhile, speaking at a news conference in Geneva, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the virus as an “unprecedented outbreak” that has been met with an “unprecedented response”.

He praised the “extraordinary measures” Chinese authorities had taken, and said there was no reason to limit trade or travel to China.

Meanwhile, after a Chinese woman fell ill on a cruise ship, 7,000 people have been placed on lockdown, 66 Brits are among them.

The US has told its citizens not to travel to China. The state department issued a level four warning – having previously urged Americans to “reconsider” travel to China – and said any citizens in China “should consider departing using commercial means”.

Russia decided to close its 4,300km (2,670-mile) far-eastern border with China and the UK Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to mainland China. Many more countries have taken steps to close borders or cancel flights, and companies like Google, Ikea, Starbucks and Tesla have closed their shops or stopped operations.

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