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'Collective efforts and freedom bring individual freedom'

By KAI WOODICHONGQING|Jun 14,2021

June 8, Chongqing

I was invited to participate in the 2021 China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights on June 8, 2021. The topic “COVID-19 Pandemic and Guarantee of the Right to Life and Health” is a very interesting one, of course, and it was happening live in Chongqing and Rome. It was sponsored by the China Society for Human Rights Studies, China Italian (China in Italy) magazine, and the Human rights institute at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, the Chongqing Center for Equal Social Development. I enjoyed keynote speeches from delegates from France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Austria, and Italy.

2021 China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights (iChongqing/ Mikkel Larsen)

The seminar offered an opportunity to know more options and insights on COVID-19 and ways to prevent and control the pandemic by valuing people’s rights to life and health.

Threat to the right to life worldwide

The opening keynote speech was by Qiangba Puncog, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress and President of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.  ” We demonstrated a ‘putting-people first’ philosophy, ensuring equity in treating patients and saving lives. That the priority was ‘caring for life and dignity, from 30-hour old babies to 100-year-old citizens and visitors’.” He emphasized that the Chinese vaccine rollout was “a massive humanitarian global operation for the global endeavor. Exported vaccines to 43 countries.” But, going forward, he stressed the world needed to “work together.”

Many topics and speeches ranged from particular countries’ responses to the pandemic, in praise of China’s guidance and leadership, vaccine philanthropy, or international cooperation to handle the particular challenges of a patchwork (localized) response, stitching them together to make a comprehensive quilt of anti-epidemic readiness and vigilance. Where appropriate and notable, I recorded notes of what seemed particularly impactful.

Mr. Luca Rizzo Nervo, Member of Parliament of Italy, Member of the Health Committee of the National Assembly, was happy to say that although they had a very bad first wave, Italy ranked second after Germany for European vaccine distribution and rollout. He stressed a “need to engage in win-win collaboration, between two Silk Road linked ancient cultures.” China and Italy, he said, “stand shoulder to shoulder for mutually beneficial cooperation, in restoring cultural and tourism events, with the environment, sports, Olympics, and public health.”

Li Junhua, Chinese Ambassador to Italy, said the priority was to “put people first, life and health should be forefront and center.  We must care for developing countries especially, work together to overcome obstacles to put health first.”

Fan Wei, Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Committee of Southwest University of Political Science and Law, commented that the “primary responsibility of governments to safeguard the right to life and health of all people,” echoing notions of a people-first, human right philosophy to China’s actions, which is jarring if you’ve been consuming Western (reports) in the media and only heard stories of China in the context of alleged human rights abuses. To see the experts speak clearly about their focus on protecting the lives of Chinese and of the global human family was powerful and meaningful.

Li Junru, Vice President of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, and Former Vice President of Party School of the Central Committee of CPC called the Chinese anti-epidemic fight “a victory against extreme poverty, a better life is our goal. ” He said, “Our world today is interdependent and interconnected, and we should have sufficient dialogues people to people, we can exist in harmony.”

There were some audio glitches, from microphone feedback that was at times dizzying or having a translation leak, where I could hear Italian, Russian, and other voices on top of the speaker and my English Channel, but the bugs aside, there were some truly excellent speakers and interesting ideas.

Legally groundless media spectacle

Professor Tom Zwart wanted to discuss a case where an American Attorney General is suing Wuhan and Hubei province in court for damages and for loss of life. Tom says this is a weak case, designed to get him reelected and play well for the public in Missouri, but there is insufficient evidence and that sovereign states enjoy immunity from US states. Even if it is proved that the outbreak began in Wuhan or China, which has not been done yet, it can be considered an unforeseen event, with the asymptotic transfer, it is very hard to control. It is Tom’s opinion that Attorney General Smith that this is a case brought together for political reasons; in the court of public opinion. He is challenging Smith’s claims, and it will be heard in court. Hopefully, this will lead to a favorable outcome. This shows it’s important for scholars to intervene and participate in human rights and international law cases.

An interesting pivot was the uneven ability of some countries to respond to the challenges and how COVID-19 has revealed previous inequities such as poverty and disparate access to world-class healthcare.

COVID-19 is an X-ray 

Next came an extremely organized slideshow from Bente Mikkelson, Director of Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health, World Health Organization, moving so quickly, I had to grab photos of her data because there wasn’t time to absorb it all in real-time. She spoke about how  COVID-19 is negatively impacting people living with or affected by NCDs. She stated that the big problem is that people don’t have equal access to medicine, and COVID 19 is like an X-ray for the development.

She discussed the rapid decline in premature mortality due to reduction in cardiovascular chronic and respiratory disease mortality and tobacco use. However, from 2016-2020, the decline is dwindling due to NCD; 70% of premature (below 70) deaths are happening in low-income countries. In 30 counties, 1.1 billion are suffering high rates of premature death due to NCD. She wants to see all people suffering from hypertension, diabetes, and cancer have access to world-class healthcare. “COVID-19 has laid bare that we need to include essential health services for prevention and control of NCDs into PHC.” 7/10 major diseases globally are NCD. The World Health Organization has  six key messages:

  1. Protecting people’s lives is the priority.
  2. Protecting livelihoods helps us do that.
  3. The virus does not discriminate, but its impacts do.
  4.  The threat is the virus; it’s not the people.
  5. No country c can beat this alone; involve everyone in the response.
  6. When we recover, we must build back better than before.

Most deaths so from NCDs between 3-70 in the developing world can be avoided and delayed through risk factor reduction. Early detection, screen, diagnosis, and treatment of major NCDS, emphasis on primary health “We need to use all the interventions provided by WHO, the political commitment and include NCD as part of the building back better,” Mikkelson said. “We will not be able to prepare for the next pandemic unless we build a stronger system to handle non-communicable diseases.”

Later came  Shyami Puvimanasinghe, Officer of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She emphasized that”the fight against COVID-19 knows no borders, so we must unite.” She spoke of the need for peace and security, development, and human rights to tackle environment and climate change. This is why the UN charter begins, ‘We the people’s.’ International cooperation and solidarity is the key to recovering from COVID-19 and future challenges. Regarding the vaccine debate, we see inequalities within states and among states. The right to development can not Be left out of this discussion.

“Every person has a right to have access to vaccine for covid19 that are safe, effective, and based on the best scientific developments, ” said Aslan Abashidze, Professor and Russian Specialist, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Should vaccines be mandatory? 

Alexandro’s Modiano, Chairman of the Board at West-East Urban Governance Institute, asked a very interesting moral question in regards to making vaccinations mandatory. “Are we obligated to take a vaccine? It’s good math when weighed against the greater trauma of not vaccinating.” These are hard choices are leaders face. “But, if you don’t do it, history will characterize you as a coward who couldn’t make the right decision. If the right decision is to save as many lives as possible, then mandatory vaccinations for everyone. If the right decision is to preserve the right to choose, the optional one is the right one. If the benefit outweighs the cost, we have a positive side to move on. But there are moral dilemmas to overcome.” For example, he said, if the cost of not vaccinating your population is 500,000 deaths, and the complications from vaccinating is 5000 deaths, although it’s not easy, of course, you must save 496,000 lives. His final thought on the matter was that we simply must.”It is an obligation to provide the available vaccination to as many citizens as soon as possible for a state. For the citizen, it is a duty to accept this offer and protect oneself, the family, the colleagues at work, the neighbors, and society at large.”

Jose Manuel Duarte de Jesus, Former Ambassador of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Researcher at the University of Lisbon, said, “One dimension appears to be that it appears to promote the more emotional behavior rather than the rational one” (the pandemic ); we should recognize the several misconceptions to problems such as human rights. Human rights should represent a dialogue for peace.”

“Every country has committed mistakes; nevertheless, we (China and Portugal) have dealt with this situation in a very responsible way.” The recent decision to grant emergency use of the Chinese vaccine is an important step to boost vaccine supply in the whole world. “As WHO said, it’s imperative we increase the global supply.”

In this pandemic context, we witness the recent demonizing of China. From the west, be said, “It’s a major concern. The EU can play an important role as an independent actor to avoid a Cold War scenario and a fair player.” In terms of human rights, the EU should respect the culture and tradition of each nation and avoid using human rights as a bashing weapon but rather commit to building an international, political, and balanced post-pandemic world, “one that is different than the one we were accustomed to. So, the EU can help to prevent the bipolar scenario.” In line with Confucius’s goals, to avoid confrontation through dialogue. “In my opinion, in a new global world, there is no room for selfish nationalism. The only way forward is multilateralism, centered in the United Nations System.”

collective freedom and individual freedom

The quote of the day, I believe, came from Wang Xigen, Dean of the Law School, Institute of Human Rights Law, Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He spoke about the right to life: “Characteristics transfer from negative to positive characteristics. For example, the right to life, civil rights, political rights convention in 1966 right to life cannot be exploited: negatively– the realization of the right to life cannot be achieved without economic and social development.” High COVID in developed countries, it’s not just about tech but human rights understandings; and individual freedom to “life first” — right to life is the foundation of every right. In 2020, China adopted the civil code for the first time to put the right of personality in it, the right to life, the right to the body, and the right to health. The conceptual transformation from individual first to people first. This one, for me, was very clear and effective: “Only with collective efforts and collective freedom can we achieve individual freedom – Wang Xigen, Dean of Law School in Wuhan.” I used it later in my speech, and although we were running a bit late, I managed to fit most of it and hopefully the good parts in.

We took a break for tiny sandwich fingers, tea, and cakes, and then I spoke about the challenges of facing the pandemic internationally and what we can learn from China’s global leadership and effective anti-epidemic measures. 

After my speech, I heard a few interesting keynote speeches. One interesting thing was the idea that countries that had very poor COVID responses might be legally liable in the coming year for complicity or failure of policy.

Government failure of public policy

“Enormous government failure in the U.K.,” said Anthony Carty, an elder professor speaking from his home in the U.K. “The UK government is liable; there’s an empirical dimension to reasonable care,” he said. “In our law, we can say, ‘What does the reasonable person think?’ That’s our democratic standard.” He asserted that the Ministry of Health, and the NHS, and by proxy, any country that did not competently move to protect its vulnerable populations, as we saw in Ontario, Canada, for example, that the compelled release of older patience into care homes (older people’s homes) promising they would be tested, but they were not; caused at least 20,000 people to lose their lives in these homes in the UK. “From this disaster and failure in policy, it’s criminal liability by the ministry of health.” This will be interesting to watch as it plays out, so see if those that originally called Wuhan’s lockdown a human rights violation will eventually be criminally negligent for not doing enough to protect their people.

Community involvement in China 

The last keynote speech at our mini-conference was from Alvaro Lago Sanchez from People’s Daily, Spain. He insisted the secret for China’s success was “Community involvement,” volunteers in the communities to help support the quarantine logistics and maintain order and harmony.

This reminds me of the quote that I used to start my diary, by Michael Levitt, formerly of HHS, America. “Anything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything after will seem inadequate.”

So, China had an early response criticized as draconian for the Wuhan and Hubei lockdown and extreme NPI measures, but they were key to controlling the spread and changing the trajectory of the pandemic, buying the world many months of slow spread to help to research care and treatment and find a vaccine that works.

I know all of our actions are important in this fight. For example, by writing my diary, I influenced my uncle Dr. Victor Wood to write an open letter in the media to ask PM Trudeau and enforce strong lockdown measures to protect Canada. While that was not universally implemented, my mom got that letter from the media to her friend, the minister of Education for Prince Edward Island, on the day she was meeting with the minister of health and Premier of the province to decide on the island’s lockdown strategy. As a result, they created some of the strongest measures in Canada and had the lowest community spread. As a result, creating a bubble where careful-normal was possible, schools and restaurants open, similar to the Chongqing and China bubble we’ve had for most of the last year.  It’s clear from the conference that many excellent minds are engaged in helping to end the pandemic. Although we hear about policy failures of leadership in many countries where they feared the diplomatic backlash of strong leadership and restrictions on mobility for their population, there are also many excellent leaders, policymakers, educators, and health care professionals that have been working hard and making good decisions and will help us to get back on track and ready to face future challenges such as global poverty alleviation, ensuring a healthy food supply and protecting the climate by switching energy sources to green and renewables, fighting global warming and rewinding natural spaces to protect all important biodiversity.  As we’ve seen in the pandemic, no person, no nation is alone, nor are humans alone on earth. If bees aren’t safe, if wild animals, plants, and crops aren’t safe, if air and water and food are not safe, no one is safe.

Despite the long and grueling day, and the technical challenges and audio glitches accompanying the conference, it was a resounding success, and I left in an optimistic and confident mood.

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