China must come clean on Covid-19| Opinion

ByBrahma Chellaney
May 05, 2020 06:44 PM IST

If there was no cover-up, why does Beijing oppose an independent inquiry on the virus?

China insists it has been fully transparent and hidden nothing on the killer coronavirus disease (Covid-19), whose international spread from Wuhan has turned into the greatest disaster of our time. So, why is Beijing opposing an independent international inquiry into the origins and spread of the virus?

If China keeps hiding information about the coronavirus, countries may economically distance themselves from it(Getty Images)
If China keeps hiding information about the coronavirus, countries may economically distance themselves from it(Getty Images)

The lethal virus emanated from China, leading to a paralysing pandemic whose costs are immeasurable. Is it unreasonable for the world to want to know how and why it happened?

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Investigating the genesis of the pandemic is critical for another reason — this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese cover-up of the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the latest pathogen flared up and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future outbreak from spiralling into yet another pandemic.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. This is the organisation whose repeated deference to Beijing since December helped China to cover its tracks. Several countries now want an inquiry to focus on the roles of both China and WHO. The WHO representative in China has said the “origins of the virus are very important” to prevent “reoccurrence”. Yet Beijing has shut out even WHO from its national Covid-19 investigations.

United States (US) President Donald Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with wilful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.

For example, why did China stop flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country after the Covid-19 outbreak, yet allowed international flights to operate from Wuhan, thus facilitating the global spread of the virus? Why did it clamp down recently on further research by Chinese scientists into the origins of the virus? It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”.

Authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory a day after its publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China refused to share any live virus sample with the world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The dangerous lab research in Wuhan may explain why China, instead of sharing any coronavirus sample, destroyed its lab samples.

Just think  —  if China was not guilty of any cover-up, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to assist in such a probe? This would give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world. Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for such an inquiry and threatening economic reprisals.

Australia is Exhibit A. The country is more economically tied with China than with its security patron, the US. Yet Australia has come under a blistering attack from China for proposing that WHO member-nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. Australia said it will push for such an investigation at the WHO assembly when it convenes for its annual meeting on May 17. In response, the Chinese ambassador to Australia threatened punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef and tourism and education sectors.

Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven (G7) countries, India and others seek a review and reform of WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules require countries to notify WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment”. China’s failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the manner of weapons inspectors.

Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the current crisis nor help defuse the increasing global backlash against it. Calls are growing louder across the world to hold China publicly accountable for the pandemic’s mounting human and economic toll. The only way China can silence such calls and begin to repair the serious damage to its image is through an independent international inquiry.

If it blocks such a probe, China will pay enormous costs — not as reparations but by compelling other major economies to restructure their relationships with it, a process that could ultimately end its status as the global hub of vital supply chains. China’s mercantilist expansionism has already led to new regulations in the European Union, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has earmarked $2.2 billion to help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.

If China refuses to come clean, important countries are likely to start economically distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, non-tariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Eventually, this could undermine the communist party’s monopoly on power in China.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist
The views expressed are personal
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