Since early 2019, a measles epidemic – the worst in the world — has killed more than 5,300 children under the age of five, while there have been some 31,000 cases of cholera.
As the COVID-19 epidemic began to sweep across the United States in March, some members of Congress began drafting resolutions demanding the Chinese government be investigated and held accountable for the spread of the virus.
On some basic facts, such as locating the first patients with the virus in Wuhan in December 2019, or the timing of Chinese authorities’ reporting to the World Health Organization, the draft resolutions were broadly accurate.
But few members of Congress acknowledged the shocking death tolls, fear, and uncertainty that people across China have endured from the coronavirus, or other pressing human rights crises in China that also warrant urgent attention but remain unaddressed. Some members’ enthusiasm for criticizing Beijing is not matched with condemnations of threats and acts of racism in the US against people of Asian descent, including the repeated use of a racist language by the president, secretary of state, and other US officials to describe the source of COVID-19.
What would a rights-respecting congressional resolution address? Members could express their condolences to and stand in solidarity with all those across China affected by COVID-19, including those who have spoken out against Chinese government censorship and suffered from official repression, including arbitrary arrests. They should condemn all racist threats and acts against people of Asian descent, starting with the president’s rhetoric. Urging the Chinese government to provide compensation to all those in China affected by the failure of authorities to adequately protect citizens makes sense – if members commit to doing the same at home. The newfound zeal for making Beijing answerable on COVID-19 should be matched with a commitment by the US to participate in international institutions that can hold states accountable for human rights violations.
Ultimately it will be critical for Congress to pursue a bipartisan, well-informed, non-racist review of US-China policy and US foreign policy after the current crisis to ensure that the prevention of public health crises and the protection of human rights in both countries and globally is given central and paramount importance.
In a welcome decision, hundreds of Nepalis who work in India and were crowded at the border trying to go back home will now be supported by Indian authorities. Nepal will support Indians stranded there. But others scattered across the Gulf states, Malaysia, and elsewhere, are also in desperate circumstances.
Nepal’s government faces huge challenges to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its response should not be denying citizens the right to come home. Nepal’s government closed its borders and stopped international flights on March 22. Some Nepalis working abroad are now stuck, as their jobs are lost and countries go into lockdown.
Human Rights Watch has spoken to stranded workers at Darchula, on Nepal’s western border with India, where around 500 people are pleading to be allowed back in. “We’ve been sleeping in the roads,” said 41-year-old Dilendra Singh Mahata. “It’s cold at night. We’re really hungry. If that disease doesn’t kill us, this will. We’re willing to quarantine, but we want to come home.”
On March 30, three men resorted to swimming across the Mahakali river, and were promptly arrested.
Others are stranded elsewhere. A group of Nepali men who worked as taxi drivers in the United Arab Emirates told Human Rights Watch they have no money and are taking turns to share a bed, or even sleeping in parks, after they lost their jobs. “We’re really stressed because we can’t go home. We have run out of food. I don’t know what to do,” one of the men said. “We’ve been talking to the embassy, but they are not willing to meet us.”
Nepali authorities have made little provision for returning citizens because they have few facilities to quarantine them. Imposing restrictions without addressing the needs of citizens entitled to return home denies them their basic rights. Such restrictions are also less likely to be effective, if they force people to live in crowded conditions, or evade controls instead of cooperating with quarantine requirements.
The Nepali government should act immediately so that its citizens can come home. It should also work with other governments to ensure the protection of its citizens abroad.
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