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Diseases like covid-19 are deadlier in non-democracies as China wrecks UN human rights

Diseases like covid-19 are deadlier in non-democracies

Source: The Economist 18 February 2020

Even though China claims otherwise!

“ONLY in China and only under the leadership of President Xi can there be such effective measures to put this sudden and fast-spreading epidemic under control.” So claims Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, when describing China’s extraordinary mobilisation to combat the new coronavirus—from the ultra-fast construction of new hospitals to the mass lockdown of Chinese cities.

China has reported more than 72,000 cases of covid-19, and more than 1,800 deaths. The first large-scale study of the epidemic, released by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention on February 18th, reports that the trend in new cases has peaked and is starting to fall. It argues that “isolation of whole cities, broadcast of critical information (eg, promoting hand washing, mask wearing, and care seeking) with high frequency through multiple channels, and mobilisation of a multi-sector rapid-response teams is helping to curb the epidemic.” That said, the authors also warn that, as draconian controls are eased and people return to work, the country “needs to prepare for the possible rebound of the epidemic”.

China likes to point out that, when the H1N1 flu virus was first identified in America in 2009 (and later found to have originated in Mexico), the country proved unable to stop a global pandemic that killed perhaps 284,000 people. Yet for all the chest-beating about the virtues of Chinese socialism, an analysis by The Economist finds that democracies—defined here as countries with free and fair elections—tend to be better than other forms of government at containing and treating outbreaks of disease. This holds true for rich and poor countries alike.

Using data from the International Disaster Database, maintained by researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, we analysed all recorded epidemics since 1960, from an outbreak of smallpox in Nepal in 1963 to more recent threats such as Zika and Ebola. The results were highly dispersed but a distinct trend was apparent: for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts (see chart below). In authoritarian countries with China’s level of income, for example, we found that past epidemics have killed about six people per 1m population. In democracies with similar incomes, they have killed just four per 1m.

The difference between democracies and non-democracies is statistically highly significant. The relationship also appears to be robust: it holds when considering only large epidemics (more than 50 deaths), or only epidemics affecting populations in the same geographical region. It also holds when controlling for the year or decade in which the epidemics occurred.

It may seem surprising that democracies, with their notoriously messy bottom-up processes, outperform their authoritarian alternatives on this measure. Urgent health concerns demand urgent action, something not normally associated with deliberative democracy. In Norway, one of the most democratic countries in the world, lawmakers have been debating the location of a new 200-bed hospital for seven years. In China, a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat coronavirus patients was recently built in just ten days.

But authoritarian regimes, although able to co-ordinate massive construction projects, may be poorly suited to matters that require the free flow of information and open dialogue between citizens and rulers. During an outbreak, for example, constructive feedback about how government policies are working can help guide a more dynamic response. Non-democratic societies often restrict the flow of information and persecute perceived critics.

Take Li Wenliang. In December Dr Li, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, privately warned his fellow doctors about the appearance of a SARS-like disease. Instead of listening to his concerns, Chinese police are said to have rebuked the doctor for “making false comments”. Dr Li was later rehabilitated. By then, though, he had become infected. Covid-19 ultimately killed him.

Or take Quishi, a Communist Party magazine. It recently reported that Xi Jinping, the president, had known of the outbreak early on and gave instructions for action to be taken on January 7th—a fortnight before the outbreak was announced. The aim may have been to portray Mr Xi as being in command of events. But it also highlighted the fact that the Chinese leadership is poor at passing on vital, life-saving information to the public.

China's reaction to the coronavirus outbreak violates human rights

Source: The Guardian 2 February 2020. By Frances Eve, the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders

The WHO has praised country’s response, but heavy-handed approach could make things worse.

When the World Health Organization [WHO] declared the 2019nCoV coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, it effusively praised China’s response to the outbreak. The WHO issued a statement welcoming the government’s “commitment to transparency”, and the WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted: “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.”

The WHO is ignoring Chinese government suppression of human rights regarding the outbreak, including severe restrictions on freedom of expression. In turn, Chinese state media are citing the WHO to defend its policies and try to silence criticism of its response to the outbreak, which has included rights violations that could make the situation worse.

China’s response to the outbreak included a month-long government cover-up in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, that led to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Local authorities publicly announced that no new cases had been detected between 3-16 January in the lead up to a major Communist party meeting, likely to suppress “bad news”. Despite early evidence of human-to-human transmission when medical staff became infected, this information was not relayed to the public for weeks. Hardly a “commitment to transparency”.

Chinese police punished frontline doctors for “spreading rumours” for trying to warn the public in late December. Police are still engaged in a campaign to detain Chinese netizens for spreading so-called “rumours”. Rumours included reports of potential cases, including people turned away from hospitals or dying without ever being tested and quickly cremated, criticism of the government, the distribution of masks, or the criticism of the discrimination of people from Wuhan or others who may be infected. Activists have been threatened with jail if they share foreign news articles or post on social media about the coronavirus outbreak.

That the Chinese government can lock millions of people into cities with almost no advance notice should not be considered anything other than terrifying. The residents of Wuhan had no time to buy food, medicine, or other essentials. Authorities hastily announced the lockdown in the middle of the night with an eight-hour gap before it went into effect, giving people time to flee and thus raising questions on the rationale for such extreme measures.

International law is clear that during a time of public health emergency, any restrictions on human rights should be based on legality, necessity, proportionality and grounded in evidence.

The international community should support all efforts to end this outbreak, but human rights should not be a casualty to the coronavirus crisis. The WHO declares that core principles of human rights and health includes accountability, equality and non-discrimination and participation. It even acknowledges that “participation is important to accountability as it provides … checks and balances which do not allow unitary leadership to exercise power in an arbitrary manner”. The WHO’s admiration for the unitary actions of the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping exercising power in an arbitrary manner is a direct contradiction of its own human rights principles.

China is not a democracy and the people cannot remove their leaders from power for governance failures related to the coronavirus outbreak. People expressing discontent online can go to prison. There is no free press and journalists trying to report on the frontline are obstructed, detained, and their stories deleted from the internet. Medical staff are gagged. Civil society organisations decimated by Xi’s crackdowns on human rights cannot work on the frontlines to support hospitals and communities. Frightened netizens are labelled “rumour-mongers”.

This should not be the new standard for outbreak response. The WHO should abide by its own human rights principles and demand the Chinese government end its censorship and police suppression surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

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