SUNNY YU argues that Beijing’s recent measures to contain a new wave of coronavirus cases were necessary, timely, and effective.
Just as swimmers and residents in Fengtai district began to get excited about going to the local pool to exercise and relax in the hot summer (as the indoor swimming pool in Fengtai announced its reopening on June 12th after months of closure), the news of new COVID-19 cases took the excitement away, accompanied by the cancellation of reopening and new containment measures in the Fengtai District.
The new COVID-19 cases in a city with no increase for almost two months testifies that changes and uncertainty can replace revitalization, recovery, and relief at any moment. Just as the bustling city declared COVID-19 outbreak as “under control”, a new wave of infections hit, forcing millions under lockdown for a second time. Facing the possibility of a second wave of outbreaks that could jeopardize the recovering city, country, and even other countries across borders, Beijing immediately took measures to control the spread of the virus. Although at the expense of limiting and tracking movements of Beijing citizens, the containment measures ensured the safety of Beijing and Chinese citizens, controlling further spread of the virus.
Although the new outbreak and accompanying policies incited fear and panic once again, including the fear of Beijing citizens carrying the virus to outside provinces, the measures themselves were non-discriminatory. The immediate quarantine, isolation, and tracking policies after signs of an increase in infection cases strictly followed basic international human rights doctrines.
As more countries announced the pandemic as a “state of emergency,” the globe is witnessing growing circumstances of abuses of power under such conditions, with autocratic governments taking advantage and using the special emergency as an excuse to increase government powers.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights warned sovereign states in an article that any containment measures would become discriminatory and problematic when “used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals.”
In Beijing, the measures respected this specific clause of the United Nations warning: even though Beijing residents fall under a social group, the measures were not implemented “as a basis to target” these groups but are rather actions carried out to prevent more infection cases outside of a specific region.
Residents of Fengtai District, where cases related to Xinfadi Market surged, were not treated discriminatorily because of the policies that limited their rights to move freely within the city and country. Similarly, the measures were specific to Beijing not to marginalize or discriminate but to control the spread, which originated in Fengtai, Beijing, from devouring the healthy lives of the people in the city and country.
The decision to put Fengtai residents under lockdown and reimpose stricter containment measures in Beijing was based on evidence of increasing cases in the region, and like the United Nations (UN) recommended, was “motivated by legitimate public health goals.” Under the containment measures, most Beijing residents with few or no infection cases in the closeby areas could still move freely based on their wills, meaning that the policies were “the least intrusive means to protect public health.” Likewise, the measures only limited the freedom of movement of residents in high-risk areas, which also shows that the policies were “narrowly tailored” and did not purposefully infringe on the rights of citizens.
“The measures were completely necessary,” said Ms. Luo, a Beijing citizen living in Haidian District. “I was not really affected by the policies, and I could still go wherever I want, like the supermarket, a friend’s house, and so on. It is important to take action to prevent the spread of the virus, and I think the measures did a great job doing that.”
The new policies in Beijing also showed “strictest respect” for international human rights treaties: during the public emergency which “threatens the life of the nation,” although the freedom of movement was taken away for some, other basic human rights remained protected and guaranteed, and there was no derogation of “articles 6, 7, 8 (paragraphs I and 2), 11, 15, 16 and 18” from the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Namely, the right to life, right from torture and slavery, and the freedom of speech and expressions are all among the rights that the measures respect.
Although as early as April, various media platforms have accused China’s measures for violating human rights, it is clear from the policies and containment outcomes in Beijing that the measures showed the greatest respect to United Nations’ concerns surrounding COVID-19 threatening human rights, and the measures in Beijing abided articles in international human rights treaties as well.
As part of the “stringent restrictions”, Beijing has imposed stricter regulations regarding the use of “Beijing Health Kit”, an application that serves as a reference for assessing people’s health for returning to the workplace, traveling to public locations, and other situations concerning COVID-19 prevention and control. In order to enter a public location like malls or workplaces, Beijing residents needed to open up their Health Kits and scan the QR codes provided at each location. Although it seems like people’s most private itineraries are being strictly followed and monitored, they are only scanning the codes and showing their health pages to ensure the greater safety of the rest of the community. Nevertheless, the application faced immediate skeptical voices that critiqued the privacy-divulging nature of the application, which claimed to be only in use “to fight the epidemic.”
As early as the implementation of the Health Kit to trace and track COVID-19 cases and one’s health conditions, the Alipay Health Code in Hangzhou has faced emerging criticism before the new waves of infection in Beijing. The privacy concerns that the “Beijing Health Kit” triggers, including the assertion that the contact tracing efforts expose personal data, can be mirrored in similar criticism of the Swiss government’s call for a similar app, which was thwarted by parliament, France’s StopCovid application, and Britain’s new phone app that identifies localized outbreaks.
In fact, the policies surrounding the use of the “Beijing Health Kit” have helped identify where people who carried the virus traveled and have overall benefited the city by making daily experiences safer for the residents. The information is solely used for tracking purposes, and for those who have been to places with COVID-19 cases, the tracing and tracking system would enable further nucleic acid tests and subsequent actions.
“For individuals, [it] is easy to know if the places I go are safe or not and whether infected people have traveled there,” said Ms. Luo. “It is a good way to make sure that the places I go to are safe because everyone has to use the app to go to specific places. This way, people can really be relieved when they travel. For me, personally, I can do grocery shopping freely without having to worry too much about my safety.”
Under the pandemic, a state of emergency for many countries in the world, many governments have started enforcing containment measures that faced human rights concerns and critique. Many fear that even after the pandemic, these measures will stay because it is always easier to construct than deconstruct new policies. However, in the case of Beijing in June, the world has seen an effective reaction that respected international human rights standards, individual rights of the citizens, and minimized harm.
Beijing took immediate action after a rise in COVID-19 cases on June 13th, and thanks to the containment measures, the new cases went down in the weeks that followed, experiencing a “cliff-like” drop the second week after the reimposed policies. With the potential human rights concerns in mind, it is important to credit effective policies while considering growing skepticism in a world with extensive historical precedents of human rights abuses under times of emergency.
Sunny Yu is a Californian high school student from Beijing who wants to use different forms of journalism to introduce to the world the voices of diverse groups of people. Through her writing, Sunny wants to present local and universal stories to ensure diversity and representation in the newsroom. Sunny can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.