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Protecting Human Rights by Limiting Them: The Strategy to Combat Covid-19

Date:23 March 2020

Written by Ratna Juwita, Ph. D Candidate at the Transboundary Legal Studies Department, Faculty of Law, University of Groningen, r.juwita rug.nl 

The world is facing an unprecedented global health challenge in the 21st century: Covid-19. Covid-19 has reshaped our understanding of the ways we combat viruses. Since its initial detection in Wuhan in late 2019,[1] Covid-19 has infected people globally.[2] The most significant problem in dealing with this virus is the incubation period of 2 to 14 days. In fact, the occasional mildness of the symptoms makes it difficult for the health authorities to identify the infected people.[3] This is the reason why containing the spread of the virus is a tricky challenge for every government.

What are the mitigation actions that can be taken to deal with the virus? The primary action that should be taken is to delay the contagion by flattening the curve of infection. It is pivotal to do so in order to avoid the overburdening of the healthcare system and ensure that the medical staff has the means to take care of the patients. Furthermore, social distancing, the closure of public places, and the cancellation of public events are part of the mitigation actions that can contribute to flattening the curve of infection. These measures intersect with human rights, especially with regard to the freedom of movement. When it comes to the intersection between this freedom and public health needs, the latter have to be prioritized for two reasons. Firstly, your freedom of movement endangers you; secondly, in this particular situation, your freedom of movement endangers others. Not only the government has the mandate to protect the life of an individual, but also an individual has the responsibility to protect the lives of other individuals. This is a perfect example of utilitarianism; the government has to act sternly to limit people from exercising their rights for the better good of all.

The Italian, Spanish and French governments have implemented strict punishments for anyone who disobeys the lockdown rules. In the first week of lockdown, the Italian authorities fined more than 40,000;[4] in the Spanish capital alone, the police charged 907 people for violating the lockdown.[5] Similar measures have also been taken by France, where 4,095 have already been fined since the imposition of the lockdown.[6] In the latter country, the fine for the transgressors was soon increased from €35 to €135, and it could still go up if it is deemed ineffective in deterring people from leaving their homes.[7] This situation is an example of how problematic it is to draw the line between protecting human rights and limiting them. People don’t simply follow the measures imposed by their governments because they regard their right to freedom of movement as something absolute. Yet, as the death toll grows, they start realizing that they are dealing with a serious threat, thus, their freedom of movement stops being their number one priority.

When China imposed a total lockdown on Wuhan on 23rd January 2020,[8] the world was shocked by such a measure that some called an aggressive and draconian policy. However, China was racing against the virus. It was imperative for the Chinese government to be faster than the virus; indeed, if Wuhan had failed, then the rest of the world would have failed too, given the city’s role in the frontline of the world’s battle against Covid-19. Their response began with a massive transfer of doctors and nurses to Wuhan, so they could take care of the overwhelming number of patients. In addition, the Chinese government committed to and succeeded in building hospitals in a matter of days, as exemplified by the Huoshenshen hospital which was built in only ten days.[9] The role of many industrial companies in China was also crucial, as they shifted their productions to make the necessary pieces of equipment for medical personnel, such as masks, protective clothes, and ventilators.[10] On 19th March 2020, China won the race against Covid-19. Their government reported zero new infection inside the city of Wuhan and, gradually, the lockdown measures have been relaxed.[11] China has been commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the success story in combating Covid-19.  The world has begun to appreciate the country’s draconian measures as they have proven effective in mitigating the viral infection. Currently, Chinese medical experts are being sent to help other countries that are struggling with Covid-19, inter alia, Italy.[12]

It is war indeed; an unprecedented type of war. We are fighting a lethal, invisible enemy against which a vaccine is yet to be developed. What humanity can do for now is to hide its vulnerable groups from the virus, in the hope that it will never find them. Covid-19 does not discriminate its victims, therefore, it is time for the people to unite and learn from each other in order to eradicate this common enemy.

[1] WHO, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen, accessed 21 March 2020.

[2] WHO, https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/685d0ace521648f8a5beeeee1b9125cd, accessed 23 March 2020.

[3] WHO, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public, accessed 21 March 2020.

[4] The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/italy-charges-more-than-40000-people-violating-lockdown-coronavirus, accessed 21 March 2020.

[5] The Local.es, https://www.thelocal.es/20200320/zero-tolerance-what-spain-is-doing-to-keep-people-in-lockdown, accessed 21 March 2020.

[6] The RFI, http://www.rfi.fr/en/europe/20200319-french-police-fine-over-4-000-people-for-violating-coronavirus-lockdown-contain-spread-covid-19, accessed 21 March 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/chinas-coronavirus-lockdown-strategy-brutal-but-effective, accessed 21 March 2020.

[9] CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/07/asia/wuhan-coronavirus-hospital-design-intl-hnk/index.html, accessed 21 March 2020.

[10] The South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/economy/global-economy/article/3074821/coronavirus-chinas-mask-making-juggernaut-cranks-gear, accessed 21 March 2020.

[11] CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/19/asia/coronavirus-covid-19-update-china-intl-hnk/index.html, accessed 21 March 2020.

[12] The South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3074682/china-sends-team-medical-experts-gear-help-italy-fight, accessed 21 March 2020.