Beijing’s accountability in the COVID-19 cover up

Beijing’s accountability in the COVID-19 cover up

The Wuhan virus (COVID 19) cover up by China is akin to a criminal conspiracy that has endangered entire mankind and threatened to put the global economy on the brink. The incalculable human and economic toll exacted by the spread of the virus that has indications of shaking up global geopolitics would reverberate across governments, corporations and individuals for a long time to come. Not only did the Chinese leadership hide crucial initial information on the origin and transmission of the virus and delay in announcing effective measures allowing it to spread to other countries, it also understated the death toll and has launched a deceptive disinformation campaign for deflecting criticism and glorifying Chinese aid efforts.

Beijing’s intentions for covering up the outbreak can be traced in the timeline of events in Wuhan and reactions/responses of the Chinese leadership in January and February 2020[1]. Concerns over a SARS-like disease with human to human transmission had been voiced much before Wuhan was shut down, and the Chinese leadership and WHO took cognizance. Instead of heeding to these alarms, the Communist Party resorted to silencing of these voices. Whistleblower doctors Ai Fen and Li Wenliang apparently ‘disappeared’ or were reprimanded for speaking the truth[2]. Conspicuously, labs analyzing the pathogen were instructed to destroy samples negating the possibility of determining the actual source of the virus, while the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre that had published the virus’s genome sequence was shut down. Reports of health care workers falling ill, an early indicator of human-to-human transmission, were suppressed and offers from the US in early January to send medical experts to Wuhan were rejected by the central government. The removal of Mayors of Wuhan and Hubei replacing them with party mouthpieces, and appointment of Major General Chen Wei[3], China’s renowned biowarfare expert to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late January when the virus was at its peak, also fuels suspicion. 

Even though the first known  COVID patient was confirmed on Dec 1 itself, and had infected his 53-year old wife[4], throughout December and more than half of January 2020, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission and National level health institutions were downplaying the outbreak, saying that there was ‘no evidence’ of human to human transmission. Instead, authorities allowed holding of local provincial Congress (Jan 6-11) and a grand feast of 40,000 families in a Lunar New Year banquet in Wuhan[5]. However, China waited till January 21 to issue the first public warning to its Wuhan residents. It was only after the virus spread to Thailand and Japan in mid-January, that the Communist China was forced to take cognizance of the outbreak. It was nearly two months after the first known patient infection, China announced (Jan 23) lockdown in Wuhan. But by then, large numbers of residents were already infected, and millions of people had travelled out as “asymptomatic, oblivious carriers”. In the words (Jan 26) of the Wuhan Mayor, about 5 million people had left Wuhan before the lockdown[6]. Many of these carried the virus to Europe, America and almost all the countries in the world.  

The precious time lost in suppressing information rather than addressing the situation laid the foundation for the global pandemic that has changed the lives of over 2 million people worldwide. A research [7]finding from the University of Southampton suggests that “The number of cases could have been dramatically reduced by 66%, 86%, and 95%, respectively if the non-Pharmaceutical Interventions could have been conducted one week, two weeks, and three weeks earlier than the actual timing across the country.” 

The Chinese government continues its deceptive and suppressive tactics. Even after the crisis has allegedly been triumphed over, censorship has remained tight and data from hospitals remains sketchy. Moreover, the government continues to muzzle unofficial sources. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the number of internet users known to have been arrested for sharing information related to the virus nearly doubled between March 2and April 1, from from 452 to 897[8]. Three of the most prominent citizen journalists working from Wuhan itself have yet to reappear after being taken into custody. The recent arrest and investigation for “serious violations of law and discipline” of real-estate mogul and Communist Party member Ren Zhiqiang, over an open letter that was critical of Xi’s handling of the crisis, is also a case in point[9].

Meanwhile, questions remain about China’s official tally of cases and deaths. A report authored by Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute[10] estimated that there would be 2.9 million total cases in China, rather than the 82000 officially reported. A similar research published by medical journal ‘Lancet’ put the likely number of infections at 2,32,000 and concomitantly, the number of deaths would have been higher[11]. Post lockdown estimates from Wuhan, based on details from funeral homes and local residents indicate that the city’s death toll may have been 10 times greater than officially reported. Notwithstanding the crisis at home, Beijing was using its diplomatic muscle as chairman of the UNSC to avert a discussion of the Wuhan virus at international fora, and stopping the WHO from paying heed to Taiwan’s warning (Dec 31) on the crisis[12].

China’s post pandemic soft-power push in the form of medical aid shipments, and the various conspiracy theories pushed by Chinese diplomats in recent weeks  to silence the fingers pointing at China, have started to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment and already a “decoupling from China” theme has emerged across the world.  A March 26 investigation by ProPublica found a network of fake Twitter accounts and hijacked real ones that were covertly spreading Chinese government propaganda about the virus to global audiences[13]. Parts of the network were linked to a Beijing company allegedly having ties to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. This lends further credibility to the world’s rising distrust in Beijing.

Stepping up diplomatic pressure on China for more transparency on the origin of the Coronavirus, European Commission (EC) President Ursula Von der Leyen has backed calls for investigation, stating (May 1) that China should work together with the EC ‘to get to the bottom of exactly how it emerged.’ Separately, diplomatic tensions between Australia and China have heightened following remarks (April 26) by the Chinese Ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng that the Chinese public may boycott Australian products or decide not to visit Australia if it continued to push for an independent inquiry on the circumstances of Coronavirus outbreak.  The Chinese Embassy also issued a statement (April 28) blaming Australia of playing ‘political games.’  Meanwhile, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has stated (Apr 28) that ‘Australia would not change its position on a major public health issue because of economic threats or threats of coercion.’

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren too stated (April 29) that Sweden is planning to approach the European Union to probe the origin of the Coronavirus.  Bilateral relations between Sweden and China have been deteriorating following the arrest (January 2018) of Chinese origin Swedish publisher Gui Minhai for printing books critical of President Xi Jinping.  Gui has since been convicted in February 2020 and imprisoned for ten years.  The Swedish government on its part has closed all the Chinese Confucius Institutes the last one being in Falkenberg (third week of April), making it first European country to do so.  These institutes were being used by China to exert influence on university campuses.  Several sister city agreements have been allowed to lapse, the most recent being the agreement between Sweden’s second largest city Gothenburg and Shanghai, which has not been renewed on the ground that there have been minimal exchanges and in the current Covid crisis, it was not conducive to extend the agreement.  Chinese Ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou has taken a confrontational and aggressive stand against criticism of China in the Swedish media and had stated (January 2020) that the criticism reminded him of a scenario where ‘a 48 kg lightweight boxer was trying to provoke a boxing match with a 86 kg heavyweight.’  Earlier, reacting to the award conferred on Gui by Swedish PEN, Chinese Ambassador had remarked (November 2019) that 

‘China treats its friends with fine wine, but for it’s enemies they got shotguns.’

 There have been anti-China protests, even in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan related to Covid-19.  On February 10, residents in the Zaisan district of Kazakhstan protested against admitting patients from China, afflicted by Covid-19, in local hospitals.  In Kyrgyzstan, residents in the Naryn region, bordering China, did not allow the return of Chinese workers, suspected of infection, to a project site and demanded their expulsion from the region. In Ukraine, Chinese Embassy has protested an allegation by the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov that Covid-19 had started from a laboratory in Wuhan.  The Mission termed the statement ‘scandalous.’ Further, in Azerbaijan, the government had advised the locals against dining in Chinese restaurants and ordering anything online from mainland China. 

Even African nations have become critical of China.  Following the forceful eviction, quarantine and testing for Coronavirus of Nigerian nationals in China, Nigeria’s Lower House of Parliament passed (Abuja, April 28) a Motion titled ‘Maltreatment and Institutional Acts of Racial Discrimination Against Nigerians Living in China by the Government of China’ condemning Chinese actions. The Motion also gives mandate to the various House Committees to ascertain the extent of violation of rights of Nigerians in China, probe the legal status of Chinese nationals / businesses in Nigeria and repatriate illegal / undocumented Chinese. 

Against this backdrop, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has publicly accused China of covering up the extent of the problem and being slow to share information, especially in the weeks after the virus first emerged, and blocking offers of help from American experts[14]. Over the past few weeks too, French President Emmanuel Macron[15], UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have joined a growing chorus of voices against China, raising questions on its transparency and disinformation campaign. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for an international inquiry into the virus cover up by China[16].

Assertions made by Chinese skeptics comparing the cover up to a crime against humanity are not unfounded. The Communist government suppressed vital information on the virus outbreak, most importantly the probability of human to human transmission, which caught many countries off-guard when the virus reached their shores. Needless to say, had Beijing acted with transparency and responsibility, the world today would not have to live in the panic and suffering that it is undergoing at present. What is worse is that Beijing continues to wield its political and economic muscle to continue this deception in the form of much publicized medical aid and disinformation warfare. The glorified Chinese propaganda campaign post pandemic is ironic at best, as is trying to douse the fire that it helped ignite in the first place. China’s political system is designed to cover up failure and exaggerate success and is not trustworthy.

[1]  The diplomat dt 13.04.2020

[2]  Voanews dt 9.03.2020

[3] Mailonline dt 14.02.2020

[4] Bloomberg dt 27.03.2020

[5]  Axios dt 18.03.2020

[6]  NPR dt 8.02.2020

[7] dt 11.03.2020

[8]  The diplomat dt 13.04.2020

[9]  Republican world dt 8.04.2020

[10]  American Enterprise Institute dt 7.04.2020

[11]  The Lancet dt 21.04.2020

[12]  Financial Times dt 20.03.2020

[13] The diplomat dt 13.04.2020

[14]  Bloomberg dt 1.04.2020

[15] Financial Times dt 17.04.2020

[16]  Reuters dt 19.04.2020

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