By: Kathy Johnson

The coronavirus outbreak has led to heightened anxiety worldwide. Even though it is not as deadly as the flu, the coronavirus is novel and not yet well understood, which makes it frightening. In the United States, some Asian Americans have faced discrimination because others connect their sneezing or coughing with the coronavirus. It is not only America where people are facing discrimination due to the coronavirus. In China discrimination against Wuhan residents, where the coronavirus originated, is rampant. Human Rights Watch has reported that Wuhan residents currently in other parts of China have reported their personal information being posted online without their consent. Many residents received harassing messages after disclosure of their personal information. Discrimination is not the only issue faced by Wuhan residents. China has specifically impinged upon its citizens’ freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which China is a signatory—though China has not ratified it—guarantees the freedom of movement. Article 12 states that, “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.” Some restrictions on the freedom of movement apply, but Article 12 limits these restrictions to “those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the freedoms of others, and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant.”

This means that ordinarily everyone has a freedom to move as they please around their country, but to protect public health, a State may inhibit one’s freedom of movement. China may quarantine people but the quarantine must meet certain conditions. The quarantine must be provided for by law and necessary for the protection of public health. Human Rights Watch reports that governments have “absolute obligations to ensure access to food, water, and health care” when a quarantine is enforced, but China does not seem to be meeting these standards. Some quarantined citizens have been quarantined in hotels without doctors present, or in at least one instance, a citizen was denied the ability to retrieve her heart medication before being quarantined.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 states that, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” Article 19 also provides a caveat that this right may be restricted “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” Though China has a legitimate interest in preventing false information from spreading, China has also impeded any spread of information about the coronavirus within China. Chinese authorities have censored various articles and social media posts about the coronavirus. Chinese citizens have a human right to receive and disseminate information. China may curtail this freedom, but only if the act is provided by law and necessary for the legitimate aim of protecting the public.

No one wants the coronavirus to become worse than it already is, but in its efforts to combat the virus, China should also exert an effort to protect the rights of its citizens. China should only restrict the freedom of movement as much as necessary and allow truthful information to circulate about the coronavirus. China may often ignore the human rights of its citizens, but this is a crucial time to uphold these rights to quell fear and discrimination and increase knowledge about the coronavirus.