In an authoritarian environment such as in China, information is strictly controlled and, if suited to the leadership, is presented as the truth to its unsuspecting citizens, who do not have the wherewithal to check the veracity of such information.
One such unsubstantiated piece of information was served by a Chinese official who claimed that the COVID-19 disease, which has taken a heavy toll on human lives and thrown the world into complete turmoil, had originated from the US and was brought to China by the US Army.
The COVID-19 fiasco had made China’s leadership, including Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), appear weak in the eyes of Chinese and also the world.
With China looking weak under the heavy burden of the US-China trade dispute, COVID-19 was bound to dent China’s international stature, with the world questioning its credentials as a world leader.
Chinese officials, without providing evidence, began to spin rumors that COVID-19 was a US conspiracy to create turmoil in the world and blame it on China.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) twisted the comments of a US health official and presented them as “evidence” to support the theory that COVID-19 was indeed a US conspiracy.
Zhao questioned the date when the first patient was identified in the US.
“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation,” Zhao tweeted.
The claim that the US was responsible for the virus as it attended the Military World Games in Wuhan in October last year lacks evidence. Separate studies by the ETH Zurich and the Scripps Research Institute suggest that the virus in humans was caused by interspecies transmission, indicating that the virus originated in China’s Hubei Province.
Researchers studying the spread of COVID-19 agree that the disease originated in China. Indeed, they even trace its origin to a wet market in Wuhan, where live exotic wild animals are sold. It can, of course, be debated whether someone who was infected could have brought the virus to the wet market, but many researchers rule out, in the absence of any evidence, that COVID-19 originated outside China.
The origin of the virus is supported by research about its genome — an organism’s complete set of DNA — and about the origins of similar maladies.
The Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center published the genome of COVID-19 two weeks after cases came to light in late December last year, indicating that the virus was passed down from bats to human beings through a not-yet identified transmitting species.
However, last month Chinese researchers suggested that the disease might have been passed to humans through the pangolin, an ant-eating mammal with large scales, although this research needs to be reviewed.
Wildlife organizations say that tens of thousands of pangolins are poached every year, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for their meat.
Conditions at the Wuhan market are ideal for transmitting interspecies pathogens. It was at a wet market in 2003 where another fatal respiratory disease, SARS, erupted, with civets contracting the virus from bats and then passing it on to humans.
The US was outraged by Zhao’s “outlandish” allegations, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it. US Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell summoned Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) and made a “stern representation.”
In a telephone call to the top official at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pompeo emphasized that this was not the time to spread “disinformation and outlandish rumors, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat.”
“The United States is sparing no effort to protect our people and contain the global coronavirus pandemic. Beijing must acknowledge its role and be part of the solution,” Pompeo tweeted.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the virus originated from animal-to-human transmission at the Wuhan market.
China has been severely criticized for initially playing down or ignoring the threat of the highly contagious respiratory infection.
Indeed, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien last week said that China tried to cover up the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “There’s lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out.”
Documents, seen by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, indicate that the first infected person contracted the disease on Nov. 17 last year, well before the WHO confirmed the first case on Dec. 8, suggesting that the disease had spread undetected for weeks before China initiated containment measures.
In damage-control mode, the Chinese government is now generously providing huge consignments of masks and other accessories to countries devastated by the coronavirus.
Beijing has, conveniently, avoided mentioning that from late November last year until Washington on Jan. 31 imposed a ban on travel from China, more than 10,000 people flew from China directly to the US.
There are fears that COVID-19 will leave a long trail of death and economic loss — the death toll alone in Italy exceeds the number of deaths in China — and cause global disruptions on an unprecedented scale. Many countries are aghast that China does not even acknowledge its role in the spread of the coronavirus.
People familiar with the unsanitary situation in Wuhan have been reporting online about the abysmal conditions in which exotic wild animals, ultimately meant for human consumption, were kept in cages. This was a perfect recipe for a disaster.
Had China launched its quarantine measures immediately when the first few COVID-19 cases emerged, the world would have been spared the turmoil and agony, including the loss of precious lives.
If China now claims “victory” by stopping the spread of the coronavirus on its soil, then it has been a Pyrrhic one.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist with writing experience on foreign affairs, diplomacy, global economics and international trade.
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