Experts share insights into the right to health

Wan Lixin
Chinese and Dutch human rights scholars and medical experts involved in the fight against COVID-19 exchanged views on a wide range of issues at a video conference on August 11.
Wan Lixin

Chinese and Dutch human rights scholars and medical experts involved in the fight against COVID-19 exchanged views on a wide range of issues at a video conference on August 11, organized by Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Through an extensive exchange of views, participants have built a consensus on issues ranging from theories, practice, obstacles and strategies in realizing the right to health in COVID-19 prevention and control.

The conference on “Realization of Right to Health in Prevention and Control of COVID-19 Pandemic” was supervised by the China Society for Human Rights Studies and organized by the local university’s Center for Human Rights Studies.

This was the eighth in a series of forums on global pandemic control and human rights protection held under the auspices of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

Prevailing views in the international context suggest that the right to health is a freedom as well as a right, referring not only to the duties of the states to ensure equal access to health care, healthy and safe work environment, suitable accommodations and healthy diets, so as to ensure equal enjoyment of the highest attainable health standards, but also to the right to autonomy of the individual’s health and right to physical integrity in the provision of health-related services.

As a result of the outbreak of the pandemic, most countries have instituted measures such as isolation, social distancing, contact tracing and mandatory testing. These measures are necessary to prevent and control the spread of the epidemic and safeguard public health security.

But some also believe that restricting people’s movement negatively impacts people’s realization of right to health in some way.

When the entire society, given its limited medical resources, is focused on safeguarding lives and health of those affected by the COVID-19, it might lead to the neglect of other people’s rights to health.

It naturally follows that how to better safeguard the right to health in COVID-19 prevention and control is an issue worthy of exploration.

In her keynote speech, Brigit Toebes, professor at Law School of University of Groningen, the Netherlands and co-chair of the Global Health Law Committee of the International Law Association, said that the right to health does not exist in isolation, but is complementary to some other rights, and this holistic perception of human rights is of vital importance to the realization of right to health in pandemic prevention and control.

This is a view in a degree subscribed to by Chang Jian, director of Human Rights Research Center (National Human Rights Education and Training Base) of Nankai University.

Chang believes that while people can enjoy autonomy in the exercise of their right to health, once these people are infected by COVID-19, they become the environment and conditions affecting the health of others, and thus a country is under obligation to prevent and contain the spread of the virus.

Successful containment

In assessing some countries’ practice in safeguarding the right to health in coping with the pandemic, participating scholars were of the general consensus that China had done very well in safeguarding the right to health, a veritable achievement so far that could be attributed to Chinese government’s strong coordination, the expertise and sacrifice of the medical professionals, dedication on the part of the community workers and volunteers, and cooperation of the people.

The scholars also explored the infringement on health and other basic human rights as a result of the adoption of some pandemic control measures, and proposed some solutions.

Shen Weixing, professor and dean of Tsinghua University’s School of Law and vice president of China Health Law Society, said that since the better protection of basic human rights is what the whole humankind is fighting for, the protection of these rights should not be slighted on account of the pandemic control.

To strike a balance between treatments of the pandemic and other diseases, Shen suggested that, in building the requisite legal infrastructure, while emphasis should be placed on public health security, protection should also be extended to basic personal freedom, property rights and privacy. Relevant mechanisms should be created as well.

Toebes also pointed to the need for strengthening the exchanges between international human rights laws and related legal provisions under WHO.

Lu Zhi’an, excutive vice director of the Fudan University National Base for Human Rights Education and Training, said that the realization of right to health in pandemic control is a complicated issue that every country should conduct due diligence studies so as to strike a balance between the right to health and other rights, with a view to promoting the realization of all human rights (including the right to health) by building on past experience.

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