By: Eli Tanenbaum
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) officially declared that the outbreak of COVID-19 had reached the level of a global pandemic. Accordingly, it became necessary for governments to take action in an attempt to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. International human rights law recognizes that during serious public health threats and emergencies, such as the spread of COVID-19, restrictions on some human rights can be justified in order to protect national security, public safety or public health. However, certain governments have taken action in response to this pandemic that undoubtedly violates human rights without justification–specifically, the rights to public health and access to information.
Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1988, everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Therefore, by law, governments have an obligation to grant equal access to information. This right becomes particularly important when the information that the individual is trying to access or reveal to others has tremendous public health implications. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) states that a “core obligation” of governments is to provide “access to information concerning the main public health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.”  However, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, numerous governments have violated this right to freedom of expression by placing a greater emphasis on its domestic law, which contradicts this international human right.
Domestic law in China is centered around protecting the government from any potential subversion of its authority. Although Article 35 of China’s Constitution grants its citizens freedom of speech and press, Chinese media regulations allow authorities to greatly limit the content that is posted on the internet by claiming that the content exposes state secrets.5 However, the definition of state secrets has become so ambiguous that the authorities can now censor any information on the internet that is deemed harmful to the government’s political or economic interests.6 Those who protect state secrets are rewarded by the government and those that illegally expose state secrets are punished according to the severity of the secrets that are divulged. If the information is deemed a trade secret, the information is removed from the internet and the author of that information may be imprisoned.7 One such violation occurred in China, which had dire consequences on not just its own citizens, but on the rest of the world’s response to the outbreak of the virus.
In China, the government initially withheld basic information about COVID-19 from the public. It is alleged that the government underreported and continues to underreport cases of infection. In addition, the government provided false information about the virus’ character in order to undermine its true danger and create a false sense of the nation’s security.2 Furthermore, government authorities monitored and censored online discussion of the virus. Those citizens whom the government discovered were revealing information about the virus were detained. For instance, Dr. Li Wenliang, was working at a hospital treating many people that were infected by what would soon be called COVID-19 (“Corona Virus”).3 On December 31, 2019, Li Wenliang messaged his medical school alumni group on WeChat, informing them that several patients at his hospital were demonstrating signs of a SARS-like illness and warning them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. After Li Wenliang released this information, he was summoned by the police. At the police station, he was reprimanded for spreading rumors online and he was forced to sign a statement acknowledging his misdemeanor before he was allowed to leave. Several weeks later, Li Wenliang died from the virus.4
Although China’s government has acted within its rights according to its domestic law, its actions directly violated international human rights. The appropriate government action in response to COVID-19 would be to ensure that everyone has access to information regarding COVID-19. However, having too much freedom to post information about the virus could cause people to be misled by false information. In order to avoid this problem and any form of discrimination, all people must have equal access to current and accurate information about the virus as well as access to services and other responses that one’s community is taking in regard to the virus. Afterall, upholding the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, which ensures that ever individual is aware of all salient facts in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, is imperative to guarantee the entire world’s safety.
 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Article 10: Freedom of Expression, https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/y-ddedf-hawliau-dynol/article-10-freedom-expression
 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response, (March. 19, 2020), https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response#
5 Constitution of the People’s First Republic of China, http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html
6 Council on Foreign Relations, Media Censorship in China, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china
7 State Secrets Laws and Regulations of the PRC, https://www.hrichina.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/State-Secrets-Report/HRIC_StateSecrets_02.pdf
2 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response, (March. 19, 2020), https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response#
3 BBC News, Li Wenliang: Coronavirus Kills Chinese Whistleblower Doctor, (Feb. 7, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51403795
4 Michael Bociurkiw, CNN’s Opinion, China’s Hero Doctor Was Punished for Telling Truth About Coronovirus, (Feb. 11, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/08/opinions/coronavirus-bociurkiw/index.html