China disregards people’s rights while struggling to control outbreak, HRW says


As the number of cases of novel coronavirus, designated nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization (WHO), skyrocketed in China, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the local population claim the ruling Chinese Communist Party is riding roughshod over people’s rights in its effort to contain the epidemic.

China’s National Health Commission announced a cumulative total of 7,678 confirmed cases and the number of deaths jumped to 170 from 132 the previous days, as confirmed cases in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore rose to double figures.

The WHO has declared the outbreak a global emergency, particularly on concerns that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems.

Meanwhile, HRW has warned of discrimination and harassment against people from Hubei province and Wuhan, its provincial capital, with hotels outside the quarantine zone turning away travellers with license plates or ID cars linked to the area.

“There have been numerous reports of hotels outside of Hubei province … refusing to admit travellers with Wuhan or Hubei identification cards, of villages setting up roadblocks blocking cars with Hubei license plates from entering, and of people from Hubei being harassed on social media,” the New York-based (HRW) said in a statement on Thursday (Jan 30).

“People who reside in Wuhan but are currently in other parts of the country reported that their personal information, such as their address, phone number, and ID number, were exposed online without their consent, and that they had received harassing phone calls or messages,” the group said.

Students studying in the virus-hit city who went back to their hometowns for Lunar New Year said their personal information was widely shared in online chat groups.

HRW called on the authorities to prohibit discrimination and harassment against people from Hubei and ensure their equal access to housing and medical care.

“Violating the rights of tens of millions of people in the effort to address the coronavirus outbreak will be counterproductive,” China researcher Yaqiu Wang said. “Transparency and engaging civil society will be the far better approach.”

The authorities have also 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, HRW said.

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

HRW said that while social media in China is a mine of misinformation, the best approach is clearer information from the government.

“Authorities have legitimate reasons to counter false information that can cause public panic.” it said. “But rather than rebutting false information and disseminating reliable facts, the authorities in some instances have appeared more concerned with silencing criticism.”

HRW said the widespread travel restrictions across much of central China had resulted in many people being cut off from essential medical treatment and basic necessities, citing the cases of cancer and HIV patients who had been unable to get live-saving medicines because of the lockdown.

“When quarantines are imposed, governments have absolute obligations to ensure access to food, water, and health care,” HRW said, saying that the quarantine was “arbitrary and potentially discriminatory” because it had allowed around five million people to leave ahead of the lockdown.

Social media posts have shown the authorities detaining and beating people for not wearing masks, shutting them up in their homes if they are suspected of having the virus, and targeting suspected coronavirus patients with strong-arm tactics and surveillance usually reserved for dissidents.

A woman surnamed Wang who returned to Shanghai on Jan. 23 from Wuhan said she was placed under house arrest for 14 days, with a newly installed surveillance camera in the hallway outside her apartment.

“Every morning at 9 o’clock, they put on protective clothing and goggles and come to carry out disinfection,” Wang said. “They also gave us milk and instant noodles, and we can have takeaway delivered to the door.”

“We can’t go out of the front door, not into the yard or out of the building,” she said, adding that she had to sign a “letter of commitment” to remain in isolation.

A video clip of a conversation between a police officer and someone who had refused to sign it after traveling from Wuhan showed the officer making threatening comments. (Source: RFA)