Covid-19: Quarantines are a 'massive human rights violation'

Isolating people not only infringes on their rights, but it causes fear and threatens the physical and mental health of millions of healthy people. What's worse is that there's no proof it works.

Diana Duong 3 minute read February 21, 2020

Taken on February 18, 2020, a medical worker checks on patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the temporary Fangcai Hospital set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. The death toll from China's new coronavirus epidemic jumped past 2,000 on February 19 after 136 more people died, with the number of new cases falling for a second straight day, according to the National Health Commission. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Based on coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak, worldwide concern seems focused on spread of the coronavirus from Hubei to other countries. But Lawrence Gostin has a much more fundamental concern: The human rights and plight of the 58.5 million people currently trapped in Hubei province.

Considering 2029 of the 2130 people who have died from Covid-19 are in Hubei province and risk in every other country in the world is considered low — the focus should be on the wellbeing of the people in Hubei.

“These are massive human rights violations. We’ve got more than 50 million people who have been denied the freedom of movement and the vast majority of them are not infected,” says Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law and global health law professor at Georgetown University.

When quarantines are imposed, governments still have the obligation to ensure their citizens have access to food, water, and health care, according to the Human Rights Watch. But there are multiple reports of patients unable to get refills for life-saving medicine. Gostin says their right to be protected and right to life is being violated. Healthy people are being congregated together in close quarters, unable to leave their homes, turned away from hospitals due to overcrowding, and left without access to the basic necessities, such as food and essential medicines.

This is unprecedented in the history of the world

“If you count the number of people required to stay in their homes or not able to travel, it’s closer to 700 million people,” he says. “That’s trying to confine nearly half the population of China. This is unprecedented in the history of the world.”

Even the great influenza pandemic of 1918 doesn’t compare. There were short quarantines, but not as long as the one we’re seeing today and the sheer scale of today’s quarantine is much larger.

Are travel bans and quarantines effective?

The problem with stopping people from travelling is that it doesn’t necessarily contain the disease. One would think a such strict measures would result in complete containment but history and science has proven otherwise. At best, quarantine delays the arrival of the disease to a new country by mere days — but it cannot contain it.

During the SARS outbreak in Toronto, more than 25,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) were placed in quarantine and 9,100 passengers screened at airports by nurses or quarantine officers, yet not a single case of SARS was caught. It was a waste of financial and human resources, according to a Government of Canada report.

In 2009, some countries implemented travel restrictions on flights to and from Mexico after the outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu. A study published in PLOS One found the travel ban only delayed the disease by three days.

“It’s not effective to confine infected and uninfected people together for such long periods of time,” says Gostin. “Nobody is talking about the plight of the people in Hubei, [but] they’ve got the rights of life and freedom as much as anyone else.”

Closing borders looks good politically

So why enforce strict travel bans and mandatory quarantines if it’s been shown it doesn’t work? Closing borders looks good politically. It’s aggressive, proactive, and gives citizens the impression their leaders are making shrewd decisions and taking action. But governments also face criticism for inaction and silence, which China has already faced for delaying reporting of the virus early on and muzzling whistleblowers who raised early alarms about the novel coronavirus.

However, reacting to citizens’ fear with an overabundance of caution is currently putting the well-being of millions at risk. Being in isolation and in an extended quarantine not only infringes on rights and liberties,  but it also it causes fear and poses an ongoing threat to the physical and mental health of millions of healthy people. What’s worse is that doing so may not significantly reduce the harm or reach of Covid-19.

As so we are left with a critical question: Is it worth it?