While there is universal agreement that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis requiring international cooperation, many governments have concluded that moving forward requires also looking backward.
Scientists suggest that the future course of the virus, and progress toward its eradication, cannot be established without a full understanding of its origins. Inconvenient though that discovery might be for present and future cooperation, it inevitably involves affixing responsibility, and even apportioning blame, for the human and economic costs of the virus’ global spread.
Governments around the world clearly were unprepared for the nature and magnitude of the crisis and, in hindsight, virtually all of them made their share of missteps.
However, in all cases — except one — errors in judgement on the nature and timing of responses were a function of having to react to a rapidly evolving external force not primarily under their own control.
The single exception, the one government that from the beginning has had control of critical information, is the country where the virus started and from where it was released to the rest of the world: The People’s Republic of China.
Regrettably, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was given far more trust than he deserved.
Because of their prior experience with disease outbreaks, leaders in Beijing had knowledge of the impending calamity and the power to either enable or contain its spread. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knew for weeks what was happening in Wuhan before it informed even the compliant WHO, let alone the international community.
Then, once the virus exploded in Wuhan — Chinese authorities initially called it the “Wuhan pneumonia” — a belated effort was made to restrict it to that city using harsh control measures that included welding doors shut to confine residents to their apartments.
Millions of people who escaped from Wuhan before the lockdown were permitted to move throughout China and to travel internationally. Contrary to the aim of taking all precautions against the dispersal of the virus, Beijing strongly objected to US President Donald Trump’s restrictions on flights from China.
More than five months after the virus first appeared, the world is still mired in debate and speculation over the precise event that triggered the outbreak, spawning conspiracy theories and false narratives. A possible animal-to-human infection from a wet market in Wuhan is seen by many as demonstrating, at worst, simple negligence for Chinese authorities’ failure to close such locations after earlier contagions.
However, negligence, or even malevolent intent, cannot yet be ruled out. Bats and other virus-carrying animals, or actual virus samples, are reportedly routinely transported to a Wuhan virology laboratory for study. The virus could have escaped or been released from there, still in its natural state. Such a scenario of lab release would be consistent with expert findings that the novel coronavirus was not genetically manipulated.
Moreover, little is publicly known about inter-laboratory transfer of virological materials among China’s many research laboratories, including the Wuhan University of Technology, whose Web site advertises its “34 innovative research centers [and] two State Key Laboratories.”
The university’s focus is engineering, but also has “Public Safety and Emergency Management [and] 230 Joint Research Centers with local governments and enterprises.”
Well after the emergence of the virus, whether from a market or a laboratory, Chinese authorities refused to cooperate with the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other countries to trace its genesis. China suppressed doctors trying to sound the alarm, destroyed lab samples and to this day refuses to share the virus’ genome sequence with international scientists. Beijing gives the impression it has something very damaging to hide.
Trump has ordered an administrative investigation of China’s conduct throughout the pandemic. He has said he is inclined to believe that the virus was mistakenly released from the Wuhan lab. He did not indicate whether that interim conclusion is based on intelligence briefings or simply reluctance to accuse the CCP of a deliberate release. Intentionality would constitute an act of biological warfare and a crime against humanity under international law, imposing an obligation to take action at the UN and, eventually, the International Criminal Court.
After Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,335 American sailors, the US declared war in the Pacific until it had defeated and removed the Imperial Japanese government. After Sept. 11, 2001, and the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans, Washington went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq to destroy the perceived evildoers. A similar fate must befall the CCP, whose mishandling of the pandemic so far has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroyed much of the global economy.
Since China’s government has proven itself unwilling or unable to change its destructive behavior, despite the lessons of past epidemics and pandemics, it must not be allowed the power to do so again. The communist system is unfit to govern the Chinese people — the first and most aggrieved victims — but only they have the ability and the right to change it.
As with the people of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the West can play a strong supportive role by providing the Chinese with the ultimate instrument of change their rulers deny them: The truth.
The pandemic must not be suffered in vain. It provides an opportunity and an obligation for the West to help the people of China rid themselves and the world of the underlying scourge that afflicts us all.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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