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An Academic Summary of the International Seminar Series on “Protection of the Rights of Specific Groups in Pandemic Prevention and Control”
January 11,2021   By:CSHRS
An Academic Summary of the International Seminar Series on “Protection of the Rights of Specific Groups in Pandemic Prevention and Control”
 
ZHANG Wanhong* & DING Peng**
 
Abstract: The international seminar on “Protection of the Rights of Specific Groups in Pandemic Prevention and Control”, organized by the Institute of Human Rights, Wuhan University, under the guidance of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, was held online on May 23, 2020. Nearly 50 scholars and practitioners from domestic and foreign universities and research institutions conducted discussions and exchanges focusing on a series of topics including “Leave No One Behind: To Guarantee Specific Groups’ Access to Public Service under the Pandemic”, “Justice for All: Prevention and Relief of Discrimination against Specific Groups”, etc.
 
Keywords: pandemic prevention and control· rights of specific groups · public services· discrimination
 
The international seminar on “Protection of the Rights of Specific Groups in Pandemic Prevention and Control”, organized by the Institute of Human Rights of Wuhan University under the guidance of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, was held online on May 23, 2020. Nearly 50 scholars and policymakers from Wuhan University,the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Fudan University, China University of Political Science and Law, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) as well as from countries such as Japan, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted discussions and exchanges focusing on a series of topics including “Leave No One Behind: To Guarantee Specific Groups Access to Public Services under the Pandemic” and “Justice for All: Prevention and Relief of Discrimination against Specific Groups”. The seminar was broadcast via the online webinar platform, with Chinese subtitles and sign language interpretation were provided. More than 100 researchers, practitioners and community members viewed it online.
 
As the novel coronavirus continues to run rampant around the world, China has realized major strategic achievements in pandemic prevention and control. This is a rare global crisis and a common challenge faced by the whole of humanity. As the only national human rights education and training base in Wuhan, the Institute of Human Rights, Wuhan University, joined hands with institutions including the De-partment of Social Work at Oslo Metropolitan University, the Institute of Ars Vivendi at Ritsumeikan University, and the Wuhan Donghu Public Welfare Service Center to conduct in-depth and meaningful discussions on the challenges and solutions on how to protect specific groups such as the disabled (especially disabled women), the elderly (including disabled senior citizens), the poor and the unemployed in pandemic prevention and control around the world, under the concept of “no one is an island in a pandemic.”
 
I. Just and Fair Public Services
 
One of the main reasons for the Institute of Human Rights of Wuhan University choosing “Protection of the Rights of Specific Groups in Pandemic Prevention and Control” as the theme of the seminar was its staff and those of its partners participated in the frontline anti-epidemic activities organized by organizations such as the Hubei Disabled Volunteer Network and the Wuhan Sign Language Support Team. In the process, they witnessed first-hand the difficulties faced by different groups of people such as the disabled, the elderly, women and children during the epidemic, and were able to analyze the causes for the relevant problems and explore some practices and solutions worth sharing.
 
As we worked to help disabled people impacted by the epidemic, what touched us the most was the tragic story of a boy with cerebral palsy in rural Huanggang. After his father was quarantined, the boy died alone in the village.1 This tragedy inspired people from all walks of life to pay attention to the impact the epidemic was having on specific vulnerable groups. As more actions were taken and deeper thinking was conducted, a certain theme gradually emerged: How to ensure vulnerable groups enjoy equal protection of their rights during a public health crisis.
 
The seminar chose to render the question analysis, sharing of experiences in relevant actions and exploration of solutions from two perspectives: one, that of public services, namely how to ensure that “no one is left behind” and everyone has access to basic medical and living guarantees such as food and medicine; the other the perspective of legal remedies, namely how to ensure everyone enjoys fairness and justness.Due to the impact of the epidemic, incidences of family violence surged, while activities violating the rights of specific groups occurred from time to time. The victims of those events should have equal access to judicial remedies. Both these perspectives can be summed up in the concept: “No one is an island in the pandemic.”
 
All experts at the seminar agreed that protecting the equal rights of specific groups during the pandemic and promoting relevant international exchanges and cooperation has both theoretical and practical significance. Rune Halvorsen, a professor of social policy at Oslo Metropolitan University, pointed out in his keynote speech that the consequences of “social distancing”, the closing down of businesses and increasing unemployment are unequally distributed in society (dependent among other things on social class, gender and disability). The crisis is likely to deepen social in-equalities, hence requiring even more and better social intervention.
 
The social intervention measures of European countries generally fall into one of the three categories: First, formulating policies from the perspective of frugality, such as lowering salaries, cutting spending, reducing social services, and only providing basic social guarantees. Second, social investment plans. The European Union intends to advance social investment plans and adopt social policies to increase investments in areas such as education, jobs and child raising. Third, capacity building plans. That means investing more resources to allow ordinary people to have greater freedom to choose their own lifestyles. No matter which category or combined approach they choose, all countries should ensure every member of society including the disabled has an equal right to participate in and influence the formulation of relevant policies. This is crucial to enhancing the resilience of the whole society, effectively preventing and controlling the coronavirus, and accelerated the post-pandemic recovery.
 
II. Equal Guarantees and Continuous Innovation
 
The seminar achieved innovation in two aspects: First, innovation in form. To ensure unblocked communication, the organizer simultaneously interpreted English speeches delivered by experts into Chinese and rendered Chinese speeches into subtitles,which were immediately shared with sign language interpreters to translate them into Chinese sign language.
 
During the seminar, participants could use English to communicate with each other directly, and those who did not speak English could watch Chinese subtitles and sign language on the online livestreaming platform. This reflected a core idea that the organizer stressed: unimpeded information accessibility. Since this seminar discussed the protection of rights of specific groups, including those who use sign language and need subtitles or voice to help them understand. Ensuring those groups of people equally access to information and participate in discussions, a way that meets the demand of human rights, was an innovation in the form made by the seminar.
 
Moreover, the seminar discussed some frontier topics, such as the relationship between business and human rights. On the one hand, experts at the seminar stressed that specific groups, such as the disabled, the elderly and women may need some special public services. On the other hand, some guests reminded people of the influence and positive role of other entities such as industrial and commercial enterprises. According to Huang Zhong, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the pandemic has impacted disabled people who are engaged in flexible employment, the gig economy and the tail end of manufacturing worldwide, and made female workers taking care of disabled people and female family members more vulnerable in the employment market. Many enterprises abandoned their “social licenses to operate,” in an attempt to pass on their costs arising from the crisis to vulnerable workers in the supply chain. This not only escalated the current humanitarian dilemma, but also intensified social inequality and public distrust in the market. Fortunately, there are also some emerging good practices taken by the government and those companies which are acting responsibly in response to the crisis. For instance, some companies have taken action to ensure vulnerable groups (such as the elderly and the disabled) have easy access to basic public services such as water supply, electricity, gas, and the internet, and some retailers introduced measures to restrict the amounts of basic living supplies people could purchase and opened specific shopping periods and channels for customers with special needs.
 
III. Cross-Cutting Concerns and Consensus Building
 
Participants at the seminar reached two main consensuses on the protection of the rights of specific groups in pandemic prevention and control.
 
One consensus was on the importance of having an intersectional perspective.Although different researchers may focus on the rights of different vulnerable groups such as the disabled, the elderly, women and children, those groups’ identities have merged during the pandemic.
 
It would be impossible to solve the complicated problems faced by disabled women, disabled elderly residents and other identity-crossing groups if we explored solutions merely from the looking at the circumstances of a single group. Solving those intersectional topics requires multi-disciplinary and multi-method efforts. To this end, we need to “cooperate with others to enrich our inter-disciplinary knowledge and explore new realms where we may meet potential partners in the process of self-learning.”2
 
Gerard Quinn, a professor at the University of Leeds and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Lund, believes that the COVID-19 crisis urges people to pay greater attention to the intersectional issue of the disabled and the elderly. In the context of institutionalization, the quarantine policy exerted severe impact on both groups. In fact, disabled and elderly people in many places suffered unequal treatment during the pandemic, especially with regard to healthcare and related services. It is important that the intersectional lessons from this crisis are adequately taken on board during the drafting of new policies. For example, they principally have to do with the wisdom of residential institutions for older persons, the need to secure equal treatment without prejudicial judgments about the “quality of life” and the need to find better ways to co-produce emergency responses with the communities most directly affected.
 
Osamu Nagase, a professor at Ritsumeikan University, Japan, talked about specific cases of ableism that resulted in casualties. He used the phenomenon of higher fatality rate of elderly COVID-19 patients in Western countries to explain the harm of ageism, and called for combating ableism and ageism through international solidarity. Based on his analysis from the perspective of social policy, Chen Shang, a lecturer of the School of Sociology, Wuhan University, pointed out that epidemic prevention and control measures should provide a sense of security for all elderly and disabled people anytime and anywhere. He added that in the post-epidemic era, elderly care and disabled assistance must recognize and support “online+offline” anti-epidemic and care services based on the internet and smartphones, so as to promote the development of “intelligent elderly care” and the establishing of a “intelligent disabled assistance” service system in an orderly manner.
 
Hu Luanjiao, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland at College Park, shared her research on the pandemic’s impact on disabled women worldwide. During the outbreak, disabled women have found it more difficult to access physiological and sanitary products or barrier-free medical care. The living conditions of women with disabilities are often much worse than any other groups, and even within this group there are disparities caused by regional factors and urban-rural differences. For a long time, disabled women have been suffering systematic rejection due to their disabilities, resulting in violations of many of their rights and interests. Under the patriarchal social system, gender expectations also bring disciplines and restrictions to women. However, disabled women are not just passive subjects to be cared for; they may also play multiple roles such as housekeepers, tutors for children and bread earners for families. Many disabled women take active part in volunteering and other work.
 
The other consensus was the discourse on rights. As participants discussed the sufferings and difficulties faced by specific vulnerable groups, they always stressed that they are integral parts of society and have innate dignity and enjoy the same rights as others. Based on recognition of this basic stance, participants at the seminar called for ensuring the disabled enjoy equal access to basic food, medicine and healthcare, including ventilators, first aid equipment, and intensive care units (ICUs). All of those are rights that disabled people enjoy, rather than charity. The discourse on equal rights will form the maximal consensus, not only in Chinese society but also in the international community. This is the foundation for us to promote future cooperation. 
 
Ensuring groups trapped in specific vulnerable scenarios such as the disabled enjoy equal rights during the COVID-19 pandemic and social and economic recovery is essential for building a community with a shared future for human beings. This inspires the thinking over the protection of equal rights of more groups affected by the epidemic, and the analysis on building a system for deeper and more extensive international exchanges and cooperation. Peng Qinxuan, an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Law at Wuhan University, noted that the treatment of non-nationals during the global pandemic is an issue of wide concern, which is also an integral part of building a community with a shared future for human beings. She also shared her views and suggestions on amending the existing Frontier Health and Quarantine Law.
 
Fu Hualing, a professor at the Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong,pointed out that almost all people experienced more or less physical and mental “disability” during the epidemic, so we should hold a modest attitude toward the fragility and diversity of humanism. In the face of the challenges brought by the pandemic, we should not give up our common discourse on rights and whether ableism and ageism or sexism and racism may affect the fulfillment of people’s rights. This is the basis to form a global discourse on rights in the future. Social organizations, volunteers and business institutions have all made their unique contributions. We should attach importance to the role of social participation in protecting the basic rights of specific groups, which is an integral part of the fulfillment of our rights.
 
IV. Chinese Experience Earns International Recognition
 
Researchers and practitioners of the work related to the disabled in China shared some good practices of the Chinese government and people from all walks of life in protecting the equal rights of disabled people during pandemic prevention and control. Hu Zhongming, a researcher at the research office of China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), introduced the effective efforts made by the Chinese government to protect the lives and health of disabled persons during the country’s battle with the virus, such as providing all sorts of information accessibility services and active psychological intervention support. He pointed out that on behalf of CDPF and Rehabilitation International, CDPF President Zhang Haidi sent a letter to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, the secretary-general of the United Nations, the chairman of the conference of states parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the director-general of the World Health Organization as well as leaders of other international organizations and major organizations of persons with disabilities, calling on the international community to jointly pay attention to the care and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic. Dr. Lin Nuannuan, a lecturer at the School of Law, Fudan University, analyzed the laws and regulations governing disabled persons’ access to medical care from the perspective of comparative law. The disabled and the elderly are excluded or face discriminations in the provision of medical resources such as ICUs in some countries. These responses have the potential to be more disruptive to societies than the disease itself. Reflecting on these discriminatory policies and measures in foreign countries is conducive to understanding regulations on the standard of due care in medical services from the perspective of protecting the rights of vulnerable groups.
 
Many disabled people as well as relevant volunteer networks and social organizations in Hubei province and other places of China played a positive role as active volunteers in the battle against the epidemic. The coverage of their actions was highlighted by mainstream media and we media helping change the public mindset that considers disabled persons “pitiful and passive.” At the same time, upon the call of communities, many accessibility demands of the disabled, and their rights to basic livelihoods, decency and dignity, have been highlighted during the epidemic.3 Those initiatives indirectly urged the State Council Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism to issue the Plan for the Assistance and Protection for Children Falling Short of Guardianship Due to the COVID-19 Epidemic and the regulation on temporary custodianship under emergencies in Article 34 of the Civil Code. In addition, some enterprises and social organizations actively collaborated with local disabled persons’ federations in helping disabled people resume work, exploring useful experiences and innovative models. Zhou Haibin, coordinator of the International Labor Organization(ILO) Global Business and Disability Network China Chapter, shared his organization’s experiences in cooperating with local disabled persons’ federations, enterprises and social organizations in China to provide online training courses, social community connection and employment support for disabled people affected by the epidemic.
 
V. Jointly Promoting Accessibility for a Brighter Future
 
Undoubtedly, the global COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges to the protection of human rights of specific groups such as the disabled. For instance, some Western countries allocated fewer medical resources to elderly and disabled people, reflecting a kind of so-called “public opinion” or “social notion”: In the times of crisis, these people are likely to be given fewer resources for the consideration of efficiency or fairness. In addition, many countries and regions’ pandemic prevention and control measures hindered the stable supply of medicines, physical and mental treatment services and social support networks, which had disproportionately negative impacts on specific groups, thus causing discrimination. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus was sudden, making it hard for previous legislation and emergency plans to fully accommodate its impacts. Furthermore, many countries took unprecedented quarantine measures as part of their pandemic prevention and control efforts, and there were no previous experiences to learn from, meaning the health crisis is more likely to exert uneven impacts on different groups. However, now the prevention and control measures have borne results, we should reflect on the impact of various temporary or long-term measures, especially their negative impact on vulnerable groups, in a timely manner. This is crucial to advancing regular pandemic prevention and control, preventing the virus from resurging, and responding to the next potential outbreak.
 
Dr. River Hustad, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo, analyzed the epidemic’s impact on immigrant workers, people with mental disabilities, and low-income groups in Norwegian society. She noted that some countries derogated from their obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and human rights standards in America and Europe in the name of emergency states. Although a state may restrict rights such as social gatherings and freedom of movement in the interest “public health”, all countries must guarantee equality and non-discrimination, which is a non-derogable obligation. To counter the impact of pandemic prevention and control measures on human rights,especially the values of equality and non-discrimination, it is necessary to reiterate the basic connotations of human rights clarified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the system of human rights law: all rights are equal and apply to everyone.
 
In the domestic context, an inspiring result of the research into disabled care theories and relevant applied human rights is that in the process of regular pandemic prevention and control, policymakers should be aware that all measures, temporary or permanent, have different impacts on different groups. Of course, policymakers cannot know in advance the needs and feelings of disabled persons, which requires support from empirical studies, renewal of theories and notions, and the voice of social communities and social organizations. Therefore, when the public service departments formulate new emergency response plans, social and economic recovery plans, the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) or draft laws, non-barrier participation of all specific groups should be ensured. Only when affected specific groups such as the disabled, the elderly, women and children participate in the policy formulation process, receive necessary assistance, and voice their needs in a non-barrier environment can relevant emergency response plans, social and economic recovery plans and other plans be inclusive and truly respect, protect and fulfill their rights. In this case, they will enjoy equal and just treatment in future work or during emergencies as part of a united, friendly society.
 
(Translated by LIU Haile)

* ZHANG Wanhong ( 张万洪 ), Professor at the School of Law, and Executive Director of the Research Institute of Human Rights, Wuhan University.
 
** DING Peng ( 丁鹏 ), Ph.D candidate at the school of Law, Wuhan University.
 
1. “A child with cerebral palsy died after 6 days alone at home”, accessed June 30, 2020. https://www.hubei gov.cn/hbfb/lzxx/202002/120200204_2018836.shtml
 
2. Malcolm Langford, “Interdisciplinarity and Multimethod Research”, in B. A. Andreassen, H. O. Sano and S.Mclemet-Lankford , Human Rights Research Methods, Edward Elgar, 2017, Ch. 8.
 
3. Zhang Wanhong, “Every Color of the Civilization Rainbow: A Glance at Anti-Epidemic Actions Related to the Disabled,” accessed June 20, 2020. https://m.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_6667672? from = groupmessage&isappinstalled=0.

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