Human Rights Protection in China’s Battle
against the COVID-19 Epidemic
The worldwide spread of COVID-19 posed serious threats to life and health of people all around the world, as well as severe challenges to governments of all countries as to how to effectively protect human rights.
1. Priority of Protecting the Rights to Life and Health in Epidemic Prevention and Control
The primary threat of major epidemic disease to human rights is to deprive of people’s life and health. The right to life is not merely the most fundamental human rights but also the most important basis and premise to realize other human rights. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to life”. Article 1 of General Comment No.14 of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights further points out that, “Health is a fundamental human right indispensable for the exercise of other human rights.”
Nonetheless, anti-epidemic measures taken to safeguard the right to life and health may conflict with the methods to realize other human rights and public interests. For instance, the measures of medical treatment, quarantine and restrictions on travel to contain epidemic transmission impose restrictions on related persons to exercise their right of personal liberty; epidemiological investigation of infected cases and release of their information involve their individual privacy rights and temporary expropriation of people’s facilities involves the right to the personal property rights; shutdown of work and production generates a negative impact on economic growth, public welfare and the right to work. The related UN documents made associated regulations on the priority ordering of conflicting rights. On the one hand, protection of the right to life is prioritized. On the other hand, in the case of public health events, the exercise of the right to freedom should be restricted to ease the obligations of the state to protect such rights.
In the epidemic prevention and control, China gave top priorities to protecting people’s rights to life and health, adopted strict anti-epidemic measures to stop virus transmission and minimized the infection rate and the fatality rate. In the early stage of the outbreak, General Secretary Xi Jinping stressed placing top priority on people’s life safety and physical health and firmly containing virus spread. The whole country generally practiced Level-1 emergency response. Wuhan City was locked down, classes suspended, corporate production and business operation shut down, group gatherings forbidden, and all communities were under closed-off management. Fever testing was conducted at all the exits and entrances; all the suspected cases were rapidly reviewed and confirmed; suspected and confirmed cases of all sorts were rapidly quarantined and given medical treatment. Close contacts of confirmed cases were investigated and the patients of fever were put under home quarantine after quarantine in dedicated facilities. The citizens were not allowed to go out without wearing a mask and any individual from other areas should be put under home quarantine for 14 days.
The measures mentioned above effectively contained the spread of COVID-19. Newly confirmed cases in China were lowered by 80% in two weeks; as of March 13, 2020, new confirmed cases nationwide had reduced to a single digit. As of May 14, 2020, the present confirmed cases nationwide had been below 100. Had non-medicine intervention taken by China been one week later than practical implementation, the cases might have been increased by three times; three weeks later, the figure might have been increased by 18 times.
2. Protection for the Equal Right of Life and Health in Epidemic Prevention and Control
The outbreak caused surging infected cases, a severe shortage of hospitals, sickbeds, medical facilities, medicine and medical staff in a short time and inability to meet the needs of infected cases for medical treatment. If critical cases were treated with priorities in special circumstances, the resources consumed would have made it impossible to treat severe and mild cases. If severe and mild cases were treated with priorities, it meant giving up sufficient protection for the right of critical incidents to life and health, forming the conflicting main bodies to protect the rights to life and health.
Following the UN’s documents on human rights, all human rights, including the right to life and health, must be equally enjoyed without any discrimination. Meanwhile, all sorts of vulnerable groups, including the senior citizens, should be given necessary special protection according to their particular needs.
The Chinese government holds fast to equally protect the right to life and health of every Chinese citizen and opposes discrimination in whatever form. To solve the dilemma of equal protection of the right to life and health resulting from resource shortage, the Chinese government rapidly amassed the resources nationwide, solved resource shortage quickly and realized due inspection, reception and medical treatment. In the face of inadequate testing institutions, the government expanded the scope of testing institutions. It allowed qualified AAA-level hospitals, centers for disease control and prevention and professional testing institutions to conduct nucleic acid testing. Confronted by a short supply of anti-epidemic supplies, qualified enterprises rapidly produced such materials as masks, protective clothing, disinfectants, thermodetectors and medical equipment. Cornered by the difficulty of large scale reception and medical treatment, the Chinese government went all out to “enlarge the capacity of sickbeds”. In severely afflicted Wuhan, “Huoshenshan Hospital” and “Leishenshan Hospital” that could accommodate more than 1,000 sickbeds were successively built and put into operation in merely about 10 days. At the same time, a group of “mobile cabin hospitals” was successively built. A group of designated hospitals was reorganized and expanded, a group of general hospitals was transformed and more than 100,000 new sickbeds were increased in a short time, changing the situation of “patients waiting for sickbeds” to “sickbeds waiting for patients”. To solve the problem of inadequate vehicles to transport the infected cases, the government transferred up to 200 negative pressure ambulances from across the country. To work out the problem of insufficient medical staff, more than 340 medical teams composing more than 42,000 medical staff were dispatched from 30 provinces, districts and cities nationwide, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and PLA to race to aid Hubei.
To effectively utilize the resources, Wuhan Municipality adopted the distribution mechanism of classified treatment, treating confirmed cases in dedicated facilities, and sending severe cases to designated hospitals and mild cases to designated hospitals and other types of medical institutions. The hospitals made use of online medical technological support to universally carry out long-distance inquiring, live streaming by experts and medical training, etc.
To protect all sorts of vulnerable groups of people in the epidemic, the Leading Group of the CPC Central Committee for Novel Coronavirus Prevention and Control released a series of relevant documents, requiring to protect and show care to the medical staff fighting at the front line of epidemic control and their aged family members; organize visit and give help to the elderly people of no family in-home quarantine due to the epidemic, the elderly people and the juveniles without any care from their family members in quarantine and the special groups of people including orphans living scattered in the society and the stay-at-home children and elderly people; do well in COVID-19 control and service guarantee such civil administration organizations as nursing institutions for the aged, child welfare institutions, juvenile salvation and protection institutions, mental health welfare institutions, vagrants and beggars relief management institutions and funeral and interment service organizations; enhance disease treatment and safe delivery of pregnant and lying-in women during epidemic control; provide medical service information to the old people with chronic illnesses during the period of epidemic control.
3. Rational Coordination of the Methods to Realize Human Rights in Epidemic Prevention and Control
To protect the right to life and health in the significant epidemic outbreak, the methods to realize other human rights and public interest should be restricted. The state’s obligation to protect corresponding human rights should be lessened to some extent. However, the restrictions and lessening should not be arbitrary but follow the fundamental principles of being according to the law, with limitations, necessity, conforming to the proportion, and non-discrimination. It requires targeted policy in epidemic control to avoid unnecessary restrictions on other human rights and public interest.
To implement targeted policies, and give equal consideration to and coordinate the protection of all human rights, China set up a series of effective management strategies and mechanisms in a bid to balance epidemic control and protection of other human rights and public interest.
To quickly recover the economy and guarantee the right to work during effective epidemic control, China applied a region-specific, multi-level targeted approach to epidemic prevention and control: To prevent the coronavirus from re-entering the country to cause a new epidemic to comprehensively recover the regular order of production and life in low-risk areas; to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from both within and without of medium-risk cities (or regions); to prevent the coronavirus from spreading within the city/region or beyond, adopt strict control and gradually recover the order of production and life according to the situation of the epidemic. In the circumstances of canceling or delaying all kinds of public gatherings, government offices, enterprises, and public institutions handled official business online and launched online teaching to guarantee routine work and education. To give equal consideration to epidemic control and people’s flow for economic recovery, China adopted the “health code” management mechanism. The people with a green code can freely go to a place, those with a red code should be quarantined in dedicated facilities for 14 days, and those with a yellow code should be quarantined for seven days. To guarantee supplies of basic daily necessities for those under home quarantine, China extensively applied non-physical-contact sales service, namely, “Internet+logistics distribution” and e-commerce platform to ensure delivery and payment during the epidemic and concurrently avoid the risks of infection due to group gathering in supermarkets, shopping malls and farm produce fairs. Meanwhile, material distribution was included in community service to guarantee safe, timely delivery of articles of daily use to the citizens and deliver the quarantined vegetables up to the standard of epidemic prevention directly to the communities to relieve the people in the quarantine of their worries about life and anti-epidemic safety.
China paid great attention to protecting people’s right to know the epidemic situation. To prevent unnecessary panic and squeeze of medical resources, related departments periodically released information to the medical institutions and the public according to the law as the knowledge of the epidemic progressed. To protect the personal privacy right in the epidemiological investigation, the governmental departments concerned made strict restrictive regulations on releasing the information of confirmed cases to protect their individual privacy and imposed legal punishment for any leakage.