Why is it wrong to demand reparations from China for Covid-19

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Guo Shaochun – RECENTLY, some politicians have been trying to pin the blame for the Covid-19 outbreak on China and even demanding reparations. This line of thinking is simply wrong or even absurd.

First, it is unreasonable to require a country that faithfully and completely fulfilled the reporting obligation to bear responsibility for the pandemic.

China is among the first countries hit by Covid-19 and is the first country to report the novel coronavirus outbreak to the WHO, but that does not mean that the virus originated in Wuhan.

According to more and more reports and surveys of initial infections, a number of earlier cases in other countries have been disclosed.

For example, the US may have seen the first cases last October. WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said there could be earlier cases and urged countries to investigate pneumonia cases of unknown origin in late 2019. However, so far, the relevant countries have not revealed and shared any formal reports on these findings.

I don’t want to guess the reasons behind it, but hope that such information, which will be vital for scientists to trace and cut off the source of the virus, will be given enough attention and treated in a timely and transparent manner, just like in China.

China supports the WHO director-general in establishing a review committee according to International Health Regulations (IHR) with the mandate of the WHA or the Executive Board to assess global response to Covid-19 in an open, transparent and inclusive manner at an appropriate time after the pandemic is over — but opposes the so-called investigation chanted by politicians in a few countries out of domestic political calculations based on the presumption of guilt. From January 20 to 21, experts from WHO China and WHO Western Pacific Region conducted a field visit to Wuhan to learn about China’s response.

From February 16 to 24, the China-WHO Joint Mission with two American experts on board made a nine-day field trip in China on Covid-19 and its response.

China has also actively participated in the consultations on the draft resolution on Covid-19 submitted by the EU to this year’s WHA and has joined the consensus on the current text.

On the tracing of the origin of the virus, all parties agreed to choose wording following the recommendations of the IHR Emergency Committee and ask the WHO DG to closely cooperate with OIE, FAO and the member states to identify the animal source of the virus, its route for transmission to humans and possible intermediate hosts, aiming to reduce the risk of similar incidents in the future.

Identifying the source of the virus is a matter of science and, as such, can only be done by scientists, not by politicians.

So far, no conclusion has been reached in the international scientific community on the origin of the virus, but the biggest consensus is that the virus comes from nature.

If someone, regardless of science, is eager to call it a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”, we have reason to wonder why he is in such a hurry to do so, and what he is anxious for and afraid of?

Virus respects no borders. It could pop up anywhere. The outbreak of a pandemic is an international public health incident and a “force majeure” in legal terms. The concept of “national responsibility” is not applicable no matter in which country or region the epidemic occurs. For example, no country was held accountable after major outbreaks such as the H1N1 flu, Ebola and Zika.

Second, it is a lie to accuse China of non-transparency on Covid-19. As early as on December 31, 2019, China reported to WHO when it identified unexplained pneumonia cases and launched an expert investigation. Starting January 3, 2020, China has been regularly informing the WHO, relevant countries and regions and China’s Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan about the pneumonia outbreak. On January 12, 2020, when lab results confirmed the existence of the novel coronavirus, China shared the whole genome sequence with the world.

Eleven days later, the city of Wuhan with a population of 13 million, was put under a gigantic quarantine program, an unprecedented city-wise lockdown. Each of the above-mentioned steps taken by China should have been a strong alarm to any government that cares about its people. The WHO recognizes China as having fully and effectively fulfilled the obligations under the IHR and setting a new benchmark for the world.

China went out of its way to share information about the outbreak of Covid-19 with other national authorities despite the fact that the WHO is the only party it is obliged to inform by the IHR. The United States was among the earliest to be notified and was continuously updated afterwards, which led to the first warning by its CDC on 15 January. On January 25 the US announce that it would close its Consulate-General in Wuhan and withdraw its personnel. On January 31, three major American airlines suspended direct flights between the US and China. On February 2, the US closed borders to all Chinese citizens and foreign nationals with travel history to China in the past 14 days.

Unfortunately China’s efforts and the window of opportunity won at sacrifice didn’t lead all to make adequate reactions and effective interventions. On May 1, the US CDC released on its website a report by its Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat and the CDC Covid-19 Response Team. It clearly states that continued travel-associated importations, not from China, large gatherings and cryptic transmission resulting from limited testing and asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread contributed to accelerated spread in the US during February.

Third, China made great effort and sacrifice to curb the spread of the virus. Nature magazine on May 4 published a study result by scientists from China, the UK, the US and other countries. It shows that without non-pharmaceutical interventions by China, the number of infected people would have been 67 times bigger than that which actually occurred. China spared no effort in fighting the pandemic.

We- took decisive measures to lockdown the city of Wuhan, where 13 million people heeded the call of the government and stayed indoors for 76 days;- sent over 300 medical teams including more than 42,000 members from all over the country to Hubei province to joint the frontline work; – built a 1000-bed emergency temporary hospital in 10 days and another with 1600 beds in 12 days;- rebuilt 16 mobile cabin hospitals where 12,000 patients received treatment; – implemented access control over all residential blocks around the country, mandated 14-day quarantine for risky persons, and vigorously encouraged social distancing;

– mobilized four million community workers to visit 650,000 urban and rural communities to spread knowledge, provide psychological counseling and basic services.

China put enormous resources in this fight and brought its economy to a virtual standstill at great cost. UN Secretary-General Guterres pointed out that by implementing strict control measures to alleviate the negative effects caused by COVID-19, the Chinese people has made great contribution for all mankind at the expense of their normal way of life.

Forth, China is joining the global fight even as it still has a lot to do at home. So far, the Chinese government has provided and is providing urgently-needed medical supplies to more than 150 countries and international organizations. It is also providing convenience for other countries to source medical supplies in China. Chinese businesses have demonstrated a great sense of corporate social responsibility by donating resources to other nations. For example, in Africa, the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation have made two batches of donations, both significant in quantity. In Zimbabwe, donations from the Chinese government and businesses have been arriving in a steady stream.

Some attempt to make an issue out of Africa’s debt to China, while in fact, as Lucy Corkin, business manager at Rand Merchant Bank Africa pointed out, China is not primarily responsible for the debt crisis in Africa.

China has been working hard to alleviate Africa’s debt burdens. As reported by Deutsche Welle, “Beijing regularly pardons a certain amount of debt at the triannual China-Africa Cooperation Forum, introduced in 2000.” For example, in 2018 President Xi Jinping personally pledged the cancellation of some debt to African nations. A report by Forbes notes, “Over 20 African nations on the receiving end of Chinese government loan have seen their loans forgiven, with about six of them getting free cash twice”. Sudan and Zimbabwe received debt relief on more than one occasion. Recently, China supported a G20 agreement to allow a moratorium of debt repayments for the poorest countries.

Just a few days ago, President Xi Jinping announced five important measures to strengthen global cooperation against Covid-19 in his speech via videolink at the opening ceremony of the 73rd World Health Assembly, including providing US$2 billion of international aid in the next two years, working with the UN to set up a global humanitarian response depot and hub in China, establishing a cooperation mechanism for its hospitals to pair up with 30 African hospitals and accelerating the building of the Africa CDC headquarters, making China’s Covid-19 vaccine development and deployment, when available, a global public good, and working with other G20 members to implement the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for the poorest countries.

The assertion that China should somehow be held financially accountable for the pandemic was first made in places outside Africa. But deliberate efforts are now being made to channel Africa’s worries about Covid-19 into frustration against China, hurting China and sabotaging its friendship with Africa at the same time. Both China and Africa need to be on guard against such a calculated move.

Guo Shaochun is Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe

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