China needs to face a full reckoning for its secrecy over coronavirus

Donald Trump is now trying to blame the World Health Organisation for the spread of Covid-19. This is unfair when he and other western leaders have kowtowed to the secrecy of Beijing

Denis MacShane
Wednesday 15 April 2020 14:22 BST
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Large crowd inside Wuhan hospital as Coronavirus panic spreads

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Has the time finally come for China to come clean on its responsibility for the global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic?

In an unprecedented breach of normal diplomatic protocol, the Chinese foreign ministry has published a private conversation between the Chinese foreign minister and the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who in an open kowtow to Beijing is quoted thus: “Mr Raab expressed the UK’s firm opposition to politicising the outbreak.”

“Politicising the outbreak“ is Chinese code for asking hard questions about when the virus was first noted as leading to serious illness and why, for several weeks, China covered up what was happening, allowing thousands of flights from the infected Wuhan population to spread the infection in China and abroad.

The Wuhan Covid-19 outbreak was first noted some time in December. A physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr Li Wenliang, began alerting colleagues to the strange new deaths he witnessed from an unknown virus. He was detained by Chinese police and told to keep quiet. Seven other Wuhan doctors who also expressed early concern about the dangers of the novel virus were arrested. They were silenced by the Chinese government, which had signed a new trade deal with Donald Trump on 15 December 2019 and wanted no publicity about a major health scare in the country.

Finally, on 31 December, the world was informed when Taiwan sent an alert to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva.

Although China tries to block Taiwan’s existence as an independent democratic nation state, there is plenty of business and tourist traffic between the island and mainland China. So Taiwan doctors and officials began picking up news of this new disease sweeping through Wuhan. They began health checks on passengers on fights from China.

Taiwan informed the WHO on New Year’s Eve of cases of “atypical pneumonia”. This term is commonly used to refer to Sars-type illness transmitted between humans caused by coronavirus. The Taiwanese were worried that just ahead of the Chinese lunar new year, when millions of Chinese travel to be with families, the disease could rapidly spread. They quarantined arrivals from the mainland and began other health measures which in a county of 24 million have held cases down to 395 – and just six deaths.

The response of the WHO to the Taiwan alert was to take no action, but rather forward it to the Chinese government for comment. The communist regime told the WHO there was no problem.

On 14 January the WHO put out a statement, tweeted globally, stating: “Investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmissions of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan.” The WHO decision to act as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, as it refused to announce the epidemic after the Taiwan alert and take the necessary measures to contain it, is a black moment in the organisation’s history. The WHO put alignment with a non-democratic, one-party state ahead of global health.

In the US, Trump is now trying to blame the WHO as solely responsible for the rapid spread of Covid-19. This is unfair: he and other western leaders have also kowtowed to the secretive Beijing regime and never insisted the Chinese government should abide by global rules.

UK, American and European intelligence agencies are now reporting a massive disinformation campaign by China to deflect blame from its own part in the pandemic. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has been more forthright than the British foreign secretary, saying the initial outbreak was “aggravated by the cover up of crucial information by Chinese party officials”.

During this crucial time, thousands of passengers were flying from Wuhan within China and globally. This was the principal source of the virus spreading. In Taiwan, doctors knew this – but the Chinese campaign against allowing Taiwan to work with the WHO and other non-political global bodies contributed to the complacency in Europe and the US about the seriousness of the outbreak.

Now a number of European parliamentarians (including 30 from Britain) have joined a campaign initiated by the French senator Andre Gattolin, who is close to Emmanuel Macron, and a French delegate on the Council of Europe, to urge that Taiwan’s expertise in recognising and then successfully combatting Covid-19 can be harnessed by the WHO and the international community.

The senior Tory MPs Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, chairs of the foreign affairs and defence select committees, have jointly urged an inquiry into Chinese responsibility for the origins of the pandemic. Separately, legal experts are looking at taking China to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The charge is that the lies of the Chinese communist regime, and now its relentless social media disinformation campaigns which the west has been slow to counter, left the world without information for crucial weeks in December and January that might have led to measures that could have limited the scale of the pandemic disaster – and a world economic depression.

There will be a major inquest here in Britain on why Covid-19 has been so poorly dealt with so far. But the bigger global debate will be on how the world handles the rising power of China, a power which is willing to risk the lives of its own citizens for several weeks on news of a virus that has caused more than 100,000 deaths globally, rather than tell the truth.

Denis MacShane was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister responsible for China and Taiwan in the Tony Blair government

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