Jul 11, 2022 07:55 PM

Editorial: Put an End to Covid Discrimination

Job seekers look for information at a job fair in Jining, Shandong province, June 30. Photo: VCG
Job seekers look for information at a job fair in Jining, Shandong province, June 30. Photo: VCG

The social and economic impact of the pandemic has become more pronounced over time. Recently, there were heated public discussions over reports of a recovered Covid-19 patient who experienced employment discrimination and slept on the streets of Shanghai. This is not an isolated incident, according to media reports. Employment discrimination not only undermines economic stability, it reflects the kind of sociological harm caused by virus fears on the ground level. While the virus has taken many lives over the past two years, it has also caused immense economic and social disruption, as well as psychological damage. There have been many reported cases of people across the world suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. All of these consequences — tangible and intangible — are costs created by the pandemic. The adoption of excessive measures, one-size-fits-all approaches and even illegal control measures have also exacerbated the problem. To minimize the social costs, China needs to take a rules-based, scientific and targeted control measures to balancing Covid-19 control and economic growth.

Stabilizing employment helps improve people’s livelihood. The pandemic has exerted more pressure on the Chinese economy. The service industry, the largest employer in China, has been hit hard, with migrant workers and fresh graduates suffering the most. In April, China’s surveyed urban unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, the highest since March 2020. Among the unemployed, the rate for young people ages 16 to 24 climbed to a record high of 18.2%, significantly higher than that in Europe and the U.S. In May, the surveyed urban unemployment rate declined slightly to 5.9%; however, it increased to 18.4% among young people (16–24). It is clear that the employment situation remains severe, and employment discrimination against recovered Covid-19 patients should not be overlooked.

Such discrimination has become absurd beyond belief. As reported, several recovered Covid-19 patients have found it tough to find jobs. Those returning to work have not found it easy either. Some say their return-to-office dates were delayed, while others simply got fired. In addition, many companies and recruitment agencies have even stated that they would not hire people who have tested positive or have been to a mobile field hospital in the last two months. Such practices are contrary to rational thinking. First of all, they violate several laws, such as the Labor Law, the Employment Promotion Law and the Law on Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases. Second, they fail to obey the central governments’ guidance, including the “Guiding Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Concerning Properly Handling Civil Cases Related to Covid-19 Epidemic in Accordance with the Law” and the “Notice by the General Office of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of Issues Concerning Properly Handling Labor Relations During the Prevention and Control of the Outbreak of Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (Covid-19).” There is no way to accurately assess how serious the employment discrimination is in China now, but just looking at recent news stories is enough to see that it has exerted a negative impact on society. The already bleak employment picture has worsened, casting a shadow over the restart of work and production and destroying public trust. Employment discrimination against recovered Covid-19 patients must be redressed.

For this kind of discrimination, people can resort to legal action. However, some scholars have suggested different ways to handle it. They argue that government departments, such as the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, should issue new measures. For example, they can expose and punish companies that discriminate against recovered Covid-19 patients. They can also make it clear that companies are not allowed to check (or require) job applicants’ Covid-19 testing records, and ensure that Covid-19 testing results that are more than a month old are no longer displayed. These suggestions are well-intended and might be effective in the short term. However, they cannot address the underlying cause of the problem.

This discrimination stems from an exaggerated fear of the virus. As long as this fear exists, discrimination against the infected, the recovered or even people who live in areas with outbreaks will not stop. The fear of Covid-19 was completely understandable during the early stage of the pandemic; it is human nature to fear the unknown. However, instead of virus fears subsiding with the advent of vaccines and medicines, this fear has intensified due to the lack of information transparency and excessive Covid-19 control measures. Therefore, the fundamental way to stop employment discrimination is to fight the pandemic according to law and take more scientific, targeted control measures. Also, excessive control measures should be prohibited, and relevant authorities should be held accountable.

The Chinese central government has repeatedly called for all local governments to adhere to the “nine prohibitions” in the prevention of Covid-19. But in practice, some local governments persist in old ways. Recently, 10 government departments, including the National Health Commission, established an online platform to gather public feedback. We thus look forward to the effective implementation of the general principle of controlling the disease according to law and with more scientific, targeted control measures. No one is above the law, and no local government can go against the principles set forth by the central government. The implementation of pandemic control measures serves as a touchstone in evaluating how loyal local governments are to the rule of law.

To heal the mass trauma, China should uphold the scientific spirit and ensure the free flow of information. While people have deepened their understanding of the virus since the initial outbreak, many still lack an accurate, scientific and systematic understanding. As the virus continues to mutate, authorities should continue to answer public concerns in a clear and timely manner. They also need to correct inaccurate information (and debunk myths) while disseminating accurate scientific information through reliable sources on a timely basis. For example, the public should be informed that people who have recovered from Covid-19 will not infect others, and that reinfection is highly unlikely. Although the prevailing omicron strain is more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain, it generally causes less severe illness and a lower death rate. Thus, there is no need to be frightened by the mere mention of the virus.

China’s economy is recovering, but its foundation is not solid. Hard work is still needed. Having a one-track mind and simplifying things without careful consideration won’t put the economy back on track, but rather, it will intensify anxiety and alienation, resulting in mental illnesses such as depression. Stimulating fear — intentionally or unintentionally — is undeniably harmful to preventing the spread of Covid-19 and resolving social dilemmas. In the face of a pandemic with no end in sight, the whole society should adhere to the law and take more scientific, targeted control measures. This seems to be the only way to eliminate discrimination — and unfounded fears — against people who have recovered from Covid-19.

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