The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic are evident in countries around the globe more so than in the nation of its birth — with China ranking among the least affected nations in terms of infection rates and economic effects.
It also remains a mystery as to how the country has managed to stay largely unaffected by a virus that originated within its borders, even as all its neighbors currently are grappling with COVID-19 surges.
No less odd is the fact that the untold global suffering wrought by the pandemic has allowed China to make major economic gains. Its economy has boomed during the pandemic, while its exports have soared to record highs. In other words, the pandemic-triggered socioeconomic disruptions across the world have worked to China’s advantage.
If another country had let a lethal virus escape from its territory, creating a globally disruptive pandemic, it would today be in the international doghouse. But China thus far has escaped blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.
After infecting people across the world, the Chinese Communist Party, through one of its publications, cynically called it “a rare example of a shared situation connecting every human being in the world.” The CCP has even manipulated online discourse to enforce its narrative on the novel coronavirus. As The New York Times reported, it “directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.”
Not only has China managed to get away with spawning the greatest global health calamity of our time, it also has successfully stymied an independent and thorough investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus.
Today, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s belated interest in probing the pandemic’s origins, the international focus is not so much on the genesis as on the threat posed by the virus’s different variants.
The world is paying the price for China’s apparent cover-up of the virus’s origins and the World Health Organization’s mishandling of the pandemic’s critical early stages. The WHO advised countries during the pandemic’s initial phase against closing borders or mandating the wearing of masks — measures that have since become central to stemming the spread of the disease.
After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, the WHO member states established a set of guidelines known as the International Health Regulations. Article 6 of these regulations oblige every state party, including China, to collect information on any “public-health emergency of international concern within its territory” and notify the WHO “within 24 hours.”
Yet Beijing blatantly violated this rule. As an international panel appointed by the WHO acknowledged in a recent report, the agency first learned of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan from Taiwan, from news articles, a public bulletin and from an automated alert system that scans the internet for mentions of unexplained pneumonia. In this light, according to Oxford University’s chancellor and the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, “This is the CCP’s coronavirus, not least because the party silenced brave Chinese doctors when they tried to blow the whistle on what was happening.”
Another factor has also aided China’s apparent cover-up of COVID-19’s origins. The Dr. Anthony Fauci-led National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health had financed dangerous lab research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) since 2014 to re-engineer bat coronaviruses and make them more infectious for experimental purposes.
Biden, for his part, frittered away the leverage his predecessor handed him to reform the WHO by rejoining that United Nations organization on his first day in office. Biden then signed a little-noticed presidential memorandum on Jan. 26 that basically termed as racist any reference to the pandemic by the “geographic location of its origin.”
By ordering federal agencies to stop making references to the pandemic by the geographic location, Biden’s memorandum made it official U.S. policy to dissociate the virus from its source of origin — China. However, it is still widely considered OK to refer to the virus’s variants by their geographic origins.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has acknowledged that its researchers led by Dr. Shi Zhengli, who was proud to be called the “bat woman,” were engaged in what is scientifically known as “gain-of-function” research. The term refers to the deliberate enhancement of natural viruses to make them more transmissible, and thus more dangerous, for experimental purposes.
Why did Dr. Fauci funnel funds to the Chinese military-linked Wuhan facility? In a fact-sheet published on Jan. 15, the U.S. State Department said that “the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military … . The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”
The fact-sheet also declared that China has not “demonstrably eliminated” its bioweapon research in apparent breach of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention, which entered into force 46 years ago.
Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason — this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. China was the origin of earlier influenza epidemics, including, as Chinese scientists have acknowledged, the 1957 “Asian flu,” the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” and the 1977 “Russian flu.” According to new research by a historian in Canada, the 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed some 50 million people worldwide may have also originated in China.
In addition, the current outbreak is not the first coronavirus pandemic to have originated in China or the first case involving Chinese concealment of facts and original samples. A Chinese cover-up during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS (a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus) triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic.
Still, China’s persistent refusal to come clean, coupled with the rising international distrust of that country, has helped fuel greater interest in investigating the pandemic’s true genesis. An increasing number of international scientists have started to debate whether the pandemic occurred because of a lab leak in Wuhan.
Last year, Beijing aggressively denounced international voices calling for it to pay compensation for pandemic-inflicted damage. And in 2021, no one is suggesting that China be sued for damages, largely because such action seems unrealistic. Beijing’s international power and clout are all too visible.
But thanks to COVID-19, many countries have learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes toward that country have shifted. And, in a signal that the tide is turning, the lab-leak theory has become mainstream.
In a “karma-is-a-bitch” way, China will indeed likely pay for the pandemic in some manner. The cumulative costs to its reputation and image will likely surpass any possible claims for reparations against it.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
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