Coronavirus and human rights: Not just violated by mishandling of information.

                                            by: Tyler Cary
        Global Environmental Politics and Society MSc Student
                                   University of Edinburgh

            As I write this, my partner is in bed with the symptoms of the common cold, but is it coronavirus? This is a question which I would like answered, as we have two children, and there is no doubt that everyone in our home has been exposed to an unknown disease, cold or coronavirus. Coronavirus has become an issue to the point that it is now included in predictive text, for those of us with the resources to afford those devices. The school that our children attend is considering halting classes. Our family is privileged enough to have access to affordable and easily accessed healthcare if an emergency arises, but this is not the case for many. The question is, how did this become a pandemic and how have human rights been violated.

The shortest answer to both questions is that the Chinese government has, and continues to actively suppress the spread of information about coronavirus or COVID-19. This has led to a lack of information along with misinformation about the disease, and in extreme cases, there were racially motivated violent attacks against people of Chinese—or any ethnicity that resembles—descent. US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been caught minimalizing, falsifying, and suppressing information about coronavirus. The suppression of relevant information and spreading of misinformation about coronavirus by these—and other—government officials is where the human rights violations begin.

            The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3 states “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person”. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), General Comment 14 states that everyone has the right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” access to timely and relevant health information, requires national governments to actively control epidemics and prevents governments “from censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information”. The constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) also enshrines these rights to life, health, and information. This is a very brief and incomplete list of the international human rights laws and agreements relevant to the spread of coronavirus.

January 30, 2020, the WHO declared a global health emergency for coronavirus, which has now spread to every continent except for Antarctica. The global mortality (death) rate is currently at around 3.4%, which is significantly higher than the originally predicted 2% by health professionals. It is not currently possible to tell how widespread the disease would be if the Chinese government had not made efforts to suppress the spread of information about coronavirus. The lack of information would have been a human rights violation if the disease had not spread beyond Chinese borders, but it has now become a global threat which has claimed more than 3,000 lives and infected more than 90,000 people.

The loss of life is not the only problem impacting the world as global markets are feeling the impact, with initial estimates predicting that the spread of coronavirus would cause the largest stock market decline since the global financial collapse in 2008. The 2008 financial collapse caused a global food crisis, which spurned food riots and violent conflicts in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations. Human rights violations and violent conflict go hand-in-hand. The consequences of the mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak has the potential to cuase widespread global problems, which may cause human rights violations that go far beyond the threat to health and life caused by the virus alone.

            The Chinese government has not scaled back its efforts to suppress the spread of information about coronavirus. The have actually created new laws which make it illegal to spread “negative” information about coronavirus, and only information which promotes the doctrine of the government or creates a positive image is legal. By doing this, China has only managed to create further human rights violations as it is not possible for anyone outside of the government to spread any information about coronavirus that can be viewed as “negative”. Instead of protecting its citizens and the lives of the global population, the Chinese government has decided to turn its back on the obligations in the ICESCR that it voluntarily agreed to. It will most likely be decades before the total cost of coronavirus and its mishandling can be calculated, if it ever can be calculated.

            So far, the spread of coronavirus has remained a problem of the wealthiest nations with the most advanced healthcare. African nations are just beginning to report cases of coronavirus. The low number of African cases is confusing some health experts because of the number of African nations that do a lot of business with China, but the number of reported cases and countries affected is growing. Globally, nations are cancelling events, closing schools, and moving the premiere dates of blockbuster movies to allow for the gathering of large groups without fear of transmission.

The need for timely, accurate, and relevant health information whenever there is the possibility that a disease is new should be obvious. Without accurate information spread to the public and health professionals, there appears to be little chance of preventing the spread of any new disease. Global news has covered little else than the spread of coronavirus, and more than 80 restrictions for travel to China and other nations with the highest infection rates are in place. The need for timely information is clear to protect the rights of everyone. Without a fast and immediate response to any new disease, the potential for human rights violations goes far beyond the human cost of the illness alone.

Tyler Cary

(Edit: Some links show updated information since this was written)