Two sessions: Wuhan lawmaker urges China to fix disease reporting and privacy flaws

Linda Lew

A Chinese lawmaker from the initial epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic is proposing changes to national legislation to remedy reporting and privacy flaws exposed by the crisis.

Zhou Hongyu, a National People’s Congress deputy from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, will submit a motion to the legislature to amend the infectious disease prevention and treatment law, according to a report by news site ThePaper.cn

Zhou, vice-president of Central China Normal University, said the changes were needed to remedy failures in the disease reporting system, infringements on the privacy and rights of residents by epidemic control measures, and a severe lack of equipment needed to fight outbreaks.

“The response to the epidemic this time has exposed several shortcomings of the relevant infectious disease prevention and response systems. Amendments to and improvement of the infectious disease law need to be on the agenda,” the report quoted him as saying.

Zhou said the law needed to specify a way to expand the classification of contagious diseases during an epidemic, and to ensure timely reporting and public disclosure of the diseases.Emergency preventive rules also need to be better defined to protect the privacy and rights of individuals, according to Zhou.

Officials and health authorities in Wuhan were criticised for failing to take appropriate action when doctors noticed a new coronavirus spreading in the central Chinese city in December and January. Eight doctors, including Li Wenliang, who alerted others were silenced and reprimanded. Li later died from Covid-19.

As part of containment measures, some officials and community workers have also imposed tight restrictions on individuals from high-risk areas. For example, some people from Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, have reportedly been refused services in hotels or locked in their homes under intrusive isolation measures.

The motion included dozens of recommendations for improving the legislation, including a proposal to integrate disease control systems withhealth providers and a call to clarify responsibilities for government agencies and officials.

“We recommend setting up an integrated outbreak control system among medical organisations and centres for disease control,” the authors of the motion said in their submission.

“When new infectious diseases appear, disease control and epidemiological organisations can intervene early and quickly lock into the source of infection, determine the transmission route and set up prevention measures based ondata collected from infectious disease monitoring systems.”

They also suggested that a “timeliness” requirement be added to the legislation, given that delays in action during the coronavirus epidemic – even of just a few days – often led to huge losses.

“The wide spread of the epidemic in Wuhan amplified the critical importance of timely [actions] to controlling the epidemics,” the deputies wrote in the motion.

On the sidelines of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Saturday, Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said he and his colleagues accepted criticism of poor handling of the pandemic in its early stages.

“With such a big epidemic in China and in the world, I accept with humility the criticism … I strived to fight the epidemic in response to the ill opinions of the CDC and myself,” Gao said.

But he also defended China’s response, saying it outperformed other countries. Gao said the CDC and the country made achievements “obvious to all” in a “closed-book exam”.

Nevertheless, the CDC needed improvements, including to the reporting system developed in the aftermath of the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome to allow individual doctors to notify authorities of an infectious disease when they saw one.

“The direct-reporting system needs further improvement so that it can capture information earlier – which is what we expect in an early warning in infectious diseases prevention and control,” Gao said.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui

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