China’s coverup unleashed a pandemic

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

The staggering costs the world is bearing for the spread of the killer coronavirus from China promise to shake up the international order. China, for its part, faces lasting damage to its image. After all, if China had acted promptly and decisively, the Covid-19 outbreak could have been confined to its central Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Instead, China’s initial, weeks-long coverup helped spawn the greatest global disaster of our time, sending the world hurtling toward a recession.

China is actually a repeat offender: It unleashed in a similar manner the world’s first 21st-century pandemic, SARS. The Communist Party of China (CPC) treated the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in November as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency, delaying the start of containment measures until January 23. The CPC not only turned a local outbreak into a global pandemic but also, by falsifying China’s Covid-19 data, it has staged a second coverup that has impeded an effective global response to the disease.

The pandemic has highlighted that only by loosening China’s grip on global supply chains – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from Beijing’s machinations. Japan has already earmarked $2.2 billion to help Japanese manufacturers shift production out of China, while White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the US could lure American firms to move back to the US by paying their full moving costs.

China, meanwhile, has launched a public-relations blitzkrieg to rewrite the pandemic’s history and rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, including by exporting medical equipment to stricken countries and claiming to have won the Covid-19 battle at home. However, in a double whammy, China not only triggered the pandemic but also accentuated the devastation in some countries by exporting millions of flawed test kits and substandard personal protective equipment and face masks for health workers.

In fact, by blocking a mere discussion on the pandemic at the UN Security Council while it served as its president in March, China underlined its guilt. If India had unleashed this pandemic through a coverup, China would have been in the lead to hold a Security Council discussion and to inflict punishment with UN sanctions. But, as underscored by Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi’s telephone call, it sought India’s help to ward off international censure.

Transparency is essential to make us all safer. One country’s authoritarianism and opacity have contributed to spiralling coronavirus infections and deaths, mammoth economic losses, and a mounting social and psychological toll across the world.

The pandemic has also dented the World Health Organization’s credibility. Instead of providing global health leadership, the WHO under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become part of the problem by putting politics ahead of public health. Indeed, by disseminating China’s false narrative and dubious figures, the WHO lulled other nations into a dangerous complacency, thereby delaying national responses by multiple weeks.

Tedros, who uses his first name, was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics while serving as his country’s health minister. But who could have imagined that, as the WHO chief, he would do something even worse – lend a helping hand to China’s COVID-19 dual coverup? Nothing better illustrates the WHO’s credibility problem than the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s statement that many people worry that the agency’s acronym may need to change from WHO to “CHO” (“Chinese Health Organization”).

US President Donald Trump’s decision to halt US funding, which makes up nearly 10% of the WHO’s $6 billion annual budget, puts pressure on the agency to clean up its act. To restore its credibility, the WHO needs fresh leadership that can independently coordinate international health policy, including by reversing the Tedros-initiated politicisation of global health.

By affecting people everywhere, the pandemic is truly more global in its impacts than either of the two world wars. But like the world wars, this once-in-a-century pandemic is a defining moment that promises to introduce profound changes in societies and economies.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2020.