Drawing lessons from the SARS crisis, the Chinese government established a legal framework to control infectious diseases and is currently applying it to deal with the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
In December 2019, dozens of pneumonia cases caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbroke in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and continued to expand. At the time of the Chinese New Year, China’s most important traditional festival, the Chinese government is making every effort to deal with it. Therefore, it is necessary for us to understand the laws and regulations according to which the Chinese government initiated its emergency response system.
Specifically, the legal framework is based on the Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases (传染病防治法), and includes, among others, the Regulation on Contingent Public Health Emergencies (突发公共卫生事件应急条例) and the National Contingency Plan for Public Health Crisis (国家突发公共卫生事件应急预案). This legal framework originated from the experience of the Chinese government in dealing with the SARS crisis in 2003.
I. Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases
China has established a legal framework to control infectious diseases with the Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases (“the Law”) as its core part. The Law was initially enacted in 1989. After the SARS crisis in 2003, China amended the Law twice respectively in 2004 and 2013, which has remained in force since then.
Pursuant to the Law, infectious diseases are divided into three categories in accordance with the descending order of severity, i.e. Category A, Category B, and Category C. Category A covers only bubonic plague and cholera while Category B covers nearly 30 diseases, including SARS. However, SARS, together with two other Category B diseases, pulmonary anthrax and highly pathogenic avian influenza, are designated to be treated with the preventive and control measures applicable to Category A infectious diseases.
China’s central government, the State Council, may announce other infectious diseases to be classified as Category B or Category C diseases, and may treat certain infectious diseases with the preventive and control measures applicable to Category A infectious diseases. On 21st Jan. 2020, the State Council announced that the diseases caused by the novel coronavirus should be classified as a Category B disease and subject to the preventive and control measures under Category A infectious diseases.
How to prevent and control Category A infectious diseases? The Law clearly requires that the patients and pathogen carriers of such infectious diseases be isolated for treatment, and that the suspected patients be isolated for treatment at designated places until a definite diagnosis is made; and that the people in close contact with the infected patients be subject to medical observation and other necessary preventive measures at designated places. If such personnel refuse treatment in isolation or, before the expiry of the isolation, break away from the treatment in isolation without authorization, public security organs may assist medical agencies to take compulsory measures for treatment in isolation. However, the government must provide daily necessities for the persons under isolation, and may also reduce their medical expenses.
In the event of an outbreak or prevalence of infectious diseases, the government may also take the following measures in order to cut off the transmission of infectious diseases:
1. Take specific measures in some areas, such as restricting or suspending mass gatherings, suspending work, business, and school classes, killing animals, and shutting down places where the spread of infectious diseases may be caused, etc.
2. Declare some administrative regions as epidemic areas and implement blockades.
To our knowledge, at present, Wuhan and other cities that are alleged to be “blockaded” on the media have not been declared epidemic areas officially. As a result, these local governments only announce a temporary suspension of public transportation in these cities, without mentioning any expressions involving “blockades”.
Government officials and medical personnel who fail to report the epidemic situation of such infectious diseases in a timely manner, or fail to promptly take preventive and control measures, may be subject to administrative sanctions or criminal prosecution.
II. The Regulation on Contingent Public Health Emergencies
In May 2003, the State Council issued the Regulation on Contingent Public Health Emergencies (“the Regulation”) in response to the SARS crisis. It was later amended in 2011 and has remained in force since then.
China's central and local governments have established a relevant emergency response system pursuant to the Regulation. This system requires the central and local governments to respectively formulate contingency plans for emergencies, establish emergency reporting systems, and establish emergency response mechanisms.
According to such system for handling emergencies, the State Council and the local governments at provincial levels may respectively decide whether to activate a national contingency plan or provincial contingency plans for their respective jurisdictions. The State Council will set up an emergency headquarter for the handling of national emergencies, which will be composed of the relevant departments of the State Council and the Army, with the major leader of the State Council as the commander-in-chief, and local governments at provincial levels may also set up provincial emergency headquarters to handle local emergencies.
However, in respect of the Wuhan coronavirus, the Chinese government did not set up the aforementioned emergency headquarters. Instead, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) set up a leading group on the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus. At present, CPC has stronger power to mobilize in China, and thus, it may be more conducive to controlling the epidemic situation to do so.
III. The National Contingency Plan for Public Health Crisis
The National Contingency Plan for Public Health Crisis (“the Plan”) is a specific plan formulated by the State Council in respect to public health emergencies, one of the four types of public emergencies specified in the National Contingency Plan for Public Crisis (国家突发公共事件总体应急预案).
The Plan divides public health emergencies into four levels: extremely significant (Level I or Top level), major (Level II), relatively major (Level III), and general (Level IV).
Level I emergencies are organized and handled by the State Council, while Level II emergencies and the others are organized and handled by local governments.
As of 26 Jan. 2020, 30 provinces in China have launched top-level public health emergency responses to the epidemic.
IV. My comments
The novel coronavirus 2019 crisis was initially identified in Wuhan, and the whole Hubei Province where this city situates is also seriously affected.
I was born in Hubei Province, and many of my family members are currently living there. I also spent my 4-year college life in Wuhan, a city with lots of well-known universities in China. Although I live in Beijing now, I have been paying close attention to this epidemic and maintaining close contact with my family members in Hubei.
To some extent, it may be useful to give a brief introduction to the Chinese legal framework related to infectious diseases, and to get the public informed how China will prevent and control the novel coronavirus so as to alleviate people’s fear. It may be one of the few things I can do at the moment.
Contributors: Guodong Du 杜国栋