The coronavirus epidemic is a global public health crisis, and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization after it spread from Wuhan, China and reached the vast majority of the world’s countries.
While the world is struggling today to contain this pandemic that caused the death of thousands and disrupted economies worldwide, another battle has emerged that may be even fiercer. Its parties are the major global powers where the pandemic posed internal and external challenges, and they are still exchanging accusations, blaming each other for the virus.
Since the beginning of the crisis, US President Donald Trump seemed to hold the Chinese authorities responsible for the spread of the virus that was first discovered in Wuhan, central China, taking every opportunity to refer to the virus as the “Chinese virus.”
Even though he faced harsh criticism for racism, over time the term “Chinese virus” started gaining momentum in American circles, given that China has acted irresponsibly when they left the door open for the virus to spread all over the world .
As for China, the pandemic was an opportunity to enhance its image in front of the world, and Beijing showered European countries fighting the virus with aid as part of a diplomatic campaign to win alliances and portray itself as the world’s savior.
However, in an unwelcome transformation, China is facing today a clear strategy to raise blame and suspicion against it from several countries, which in turn might undermine China’s aspirations to become a global economic and political power.
Doubt cast cloud over china
Nearly four months after the emergence of the novel coronavirus, new reports appear accusing China of contributing to the spread of the virus. Some even mentioned that Beijing allowed it to spread to demonstrate the country’s power to the world, while others openly insinuated that a Wuhan laboratory is the source of the virus.
This controversy is no longer limited to media articles, but has also appeared in statements on the highest levels. During a press conference, for example, President Donald Trump stressed that his country has started a comprehensive investigation to find the source of the virus, a fact that was confirmed by CNN when it reported that American intelligence is investigating on this matter.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also told Fox News that Beijing is required to disclose everything they know about the spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly hinting at the responsibility of Wuhan Institute of Virology, where the virus first appeared.
The main American narrative came in a Fox News report that there was a certain way through which the virus may have been leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared in late 2019 while researchers in the laboratory were studying coronavirus in bats.
Then, the narrative claims, the Chinese government covered up the incident by blaming the seafood market and refusing to allow an independent investigation.
European accusations seem less severe than their American counterparts. However, regardless of how the virus started, European governments criticize China for lack of transparency, withholding information, failing to announce the true scope of the epidemic, and hampering the world’s ability to respond to this pandemic in time.
This position was emphasized by the French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview with the Financial Times, when he mentioned that there are gaps in China’s management of the novel coronavirus crisis, and that “there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.” He also pointed out that in democracies that guarantee freedom of information and expression, crisis management is transparent and is subject to discussion.
Thus, Europe believes that the Chinese authorities have exposed the world to dangers to public health and economic turmoil, which is not entirely separate from blaming it for being the source of the virus.
However, China denies these accusations that the virus was designed in a laboratory, or that it was a natural virus but they allowed it to spread, and China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said “I’d like to remind you that the WHO has repeatedly stated that there is no evidence showing the virus was made in a lab.”
China bears legal liability
With the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan at the beginning of the year, Chinese authorities made a clear and deliberate disinformation campaign regarding the virus. Countries of the world agree that it could have been possible to save China and the world from thousands of deaths if China had acted openly and in accordance with its legal obligations as one of 194 countries included in the International Health Regulations of 2005, which requires China to provide information to the international community to aid in understanding of the situation and its potential public health impact.
Article six of the regulations stipulates that “a State Party shall continue to communicate to the WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information available to it,” in order to prevent the spread of epidemics.
There is a growing agreement among Republicans and Democrats in the United States that the Chinese government bears liability for the spread of the virus, since China withheld fundamental information for weeks, during which other countries could have adopted measures that contribute to preventing the spread of the virus.
More than a month after the crisis started, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese government of still withholding important information. These accusations became more credible in early April, when the CIA questioned Beijing’s official numbers on the extent of the virus’ spread in China.
Moreover, many people in the United States and the world want to hold China accountable judicially. For example, Director of Government Relations at the Berman Law Group and former Florida Senator Joseph Abruzzo said, “This could have been contained while Chinese officials instead attempted to put a positive narrative on the unfolding epidemic for China’s own economic self-interest.”
For his part, the co-founder of the group, Russell Berman, indicated that the Chinese government is a defendant in a class-action lawsuit and should pay huge compensation to the United States and the American people.
Also, the British Henry Jackson Society issued a report in which it demanded that China should — pursuant to international law — pay US$6.5 trillion for hiding the initial information related to the virus, which resulted in more than 165,000 deaths so far and the loss of trillions of dollars on the economic level as a result of the lockdowns in place in most countries of the world.
According to the British newspaper Express, Germany sent China a €149 Billion bill (around $160 billion) for coronavirus damages so far. The list also detailed the German losses as: €27 billion charge for lost tourism revenue, up to €7.2 billion for the German film industry, a million euros an hour for German airline Lufthansa and €50 billion for German small businesses.
Australia did the same when Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton called on Chinese authorities to disclose information about the source of the virus. He also mentioned that the virus has killed 60 Australians, that hundreds of infected people are in critical condition, and that all of those families would demand answers and transparency.
He added that, “It’s not too much to ask […] So I think it is incumbent upon China to answer those questions and provide the information so that people can have clarity about exactly what happened because we don’t want it to be repeated and we know this is not the first instance of a virus being spread from the wildlife wet markets.”
China may lose its status as a superpower
Many assumed that the chaotic response to the virus in the West might allow China to advance in creating a vacuum in global governance, as this pandemic demonstrated the failure of the American administration to provide any meaningful international response. It also reflected the European Union’s preoccupation with domestic response only, which may provide an opportunity for the Chinese authorities to exploit the situation.
In addition, these conditions provided an opportunity to China to rewrite the narrative of the novel coronavirus outbreak, in an attempt to distance itself from criticism of its initial attempts to cover up the outbreak, and to pretend to be ready to save the world based on its successful experience in controlling the virus.
But these attempts proved to be premature, and it may negatively impact China, leaving it in isolation and removing trust in it — the trust that China needed decades of gradual progress to build within the international community until it rose to the rank of the second superpower in the world.
This may also significantly affect the reforms that lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty and helped China ascend to the global stage. All these achievements and their results would not have been achieved without the engagement and support of the international community.
Indeed, this trust was undermined as accusations against China grew regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and these accusations may end the leading role China played in the world for nearly 30 years.
The consequences of China’s handling the pandemic are already beginning to appear. In Britain, prominent conservative figures are calling to rethink Britain’s efforts to strengthen ties with China, and these calls are demanding that the British government not allow Huawei to obtain rights to build infrastructure for 5G technology — which the United States has always been against, accusing the company of spying for the Chinese government.
Similarly, European and Australian governments rushed to prevent Chinese companies from buying assets cheaply amidst economic meltdowns, and Japan explicitly allocated $2.2 billion to help Japanese companies move supply chains out of China.
Finally, at a time when many expected that the “post-Corona world” might be led by China, global developments show that such an assumption was premature, and the reality is that the coronavirus crisis demonstrates a rapidly changing situation in the world. When China appeared as a savior of the world, and its diplomatic and media campaign began to bear fruit, its plan backfired.
Today, China is facing an unprecedented historical challenge that will not only affect its global image and reputation, but may also go beyond that and China becomes required to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation to the world. Perhaps the coming days will be darker for China’s interests, especially as countries are looking for the source of the virus.
Here, the most important questions are: Will the Arab countries join the list of claimants for compensation of trillions of dollars, or will they remain neutral?
And will China yield to global pressure and pay those trillions that took them many years to collect, thus causing China’s “economic miracle” to be set back for twenty years?
Image: (AFP / Anthony WALLACE)