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Human rights concerns grow as the Coronavirus outbreak spreads

As countries around the world struggle to contain the Coronavirus pandemic, measures must consider human rights before they are taken. For instance, by taking drastic and what some have called draconian measures, China appears to have slowed down the coronavirus, but it has come at a high cost.

“The case of Li Wenliang is a tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining ‘stability’ drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest,” Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement.

Li, a 34-year-old eye doctor, was one of the first to raise the alarm about what was then a mysterious new virus, expressing his concerns with other medics in a private online chat. After the post was shared more widely, he was reprimanded by police. Last month, he died from the disease, triggering a public outcry and demands for freedom of speech.

European governments are also fighting against the spread of the pandemic with strong measures. While it is necessary to respond to the unprecedented challenge the world is facing, it is clear that the enjoyment of human rights is affected by the pandemic and the measures adopted to encounter it. The right to health, the broader range of economic and social rights, and civil and political freedoms, are all very relevant in the present context.

In Israel, emergency regulations have been invoked to deploy cyber monitoring in the battle against the coronavirus which would enable authorities to harvest data from phones to track those potentially infected. The government said halting its spread outweighed concerns about the invasion of privacy. It will be important that the measure be reviewed or removed, as they have stated, within 30 days.

In a statement published on 17th March 2020, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “It is essential that governments remain vigilant against racist, xenophobic or stigmatising acts, and provide wide access to unbiased information on the public health situation, availability of services, and the measures undertaken.”

Sharon Hom, executive director of China Human Rights in China, an international NGO, says access to information along with restrictions on content and dissemination of information, remain as key tools of social control in China. Since the outbreak began her organisation has tracked a number of cases where people who posted critical reporting of the authorities’ “inadequate responses” to the handling of the epidemic appear to have “disappeared”.

“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 human rights lawyer, Chen Qiushi, was taken away on 7th February and apparently “put under quarantine” for 24 days. There is no publicly available information on his situation. Quishi became well known for his coverage of the Hong Kong protests as well as the coronavirus outbreak. Another citizen journalist, Fang Bin, a businessman from Wuhan, has not been heard from since he disappeared in February.

“Quarantine becomes arbitrary detention when there is no doubt or legal reason a person is forced to be in a particular place and not allowed to apply for judicial review,” said Ford Liao, professor of law at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

In Syria, where there are huge numbers of detained and displaced people which are some of the most vulnerable to the virus, their situation could be catastrophic. Syria’s prisons hold tens of thousands of detainees. Many have been arbitrarily detained for their participation in peaceful protests or for expressing dissenting political opinion.

The Syrian government maintains that there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Syria thus far. But its neighbors have all reported cases and it is clear how catastrophic even one case in Syria’s overcrowded prisons would be.

In refugee camps, fears of an outbreak are growing. News of a confirmed case of Covid-19 on Lesbos has sparked fears of the impact of an outbreak at the overcrowded Moria refugee camp, where refugees live in dire conditions with appalling hygiene and little medical care. The troubling conditions in the camp have worsened this week, and tensions on the island have seen several NGOs forced to reduce or close services over safety fears.

The situation for the 20,000 people living in and around Moria camp was already dire. With almost half the camp’s population aged under 18 and many families living without tents or any form of shelter, even a short closure of basic services leaves many vulnerable people in danger.

“COVID-19 poses a serious danger. But with unity, determination to protect human rights and solidarity we will overcome it,” stated the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

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