Group Raises Human Rights Concerns as China Struggles to Control Epidemic

As the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed in China on Thursday, rights groups and local people say the ruling Chinese Communist Party is riding roughshod over people's rights in its effort to contain the epidemic centered on the central city of Wuhan.

China's National Health Commission announced a cumulative total of 7,678 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus -- designated nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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, prompting the WHO to declare the outbreak global emergency, particularly on concerns that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems.

"The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Ma Guoqiang, secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party for Wuhan, said the sharp rise in fresh cases is the result of the authorities freeing up more hospital beds to meet demand in a city of 11 million that is now under quarantine, with no movement permitted in or out.

"In order to speed up the pace of examinations to achieve earlier diagnosis and treatment, the number of hospitals and disease control centers in Wuhan authorized to see patients [with likely coronavirus symptoms] increased to nine from Jan. 24," Ma told a news conference.

"That's why the number of diagnosed cases grew by a large amount," Ma said. "This is about speculation becoming diagnosis."

Asked about widely reported shortages of essential medical supplies, Ma said the city has enough supplies. But he admitted that there had been a shortage of hospital beds in the city "in recent years."

Ma said he believed that most people from Wuhan and Hubei would be well-treated elsewhere in China, even if they needed to be place in isolation for 14 days.

But a U.S.-based rights group warned of discrimination and harassment against people from Hubei province and Wuhan, its provincial capital, with hotels outside the quarantine zone turning away travelers with license plates or ID cars linked to the area.

"There have been numerous reports of hotels outside of Hubei province ... refusing to admit travelers 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 Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Thursday.

"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.

Discrimination and harassment against people from Hubei

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.

There are signs that more comprehensive government surveillance is being rolled out as part of a bid to curb the epidemic.

In a Jan. 29 document, the public health emergency command center in Hunan's Xiangyin county ordered local officials to implement a "grid management" system that subdivides townships and villages into clusters of just a handful of households to be monitored by officials.

"All rural roads out of the county are to be strictly closed, with nothing allowed to pass," the document said, suggesting that similar measures are also being rolled out elsewhere in China.

"Anyone refusing to obey these instructions will be placed under compulsory isolation," it said.

'Biggest rumors and lies come from the government itself'

Poet Wang Zang, who lives in the southwestern province of Yunnan, said he had received a visit from local police after he forwarded a social media post related to the epidemic.

"They came knocking at my door in the morning, and scared the kid," Wang said. "I didn't open the door for security reasons."

Wang said he had then been summoned to the local police station for questioning, but had refused to go, citing the epidemic.

Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing said he had been told to delete a social media post by police.

"The reason why the epidemic is so big is because of the suppression of freedom of speech," Sui said. "The biggest rumors and lies come from the government itself, and it's those that cause the greatest harm."

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.

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