‘The reckoning’: China and the virus blame game

Boys’ toys: Life beginning to return to the streets of Beijing yesterday. © Getty

Does China deserve to be blamed for Covid-19? As Western nations are brought to their knees, recriminations are mounting. The Chinese government is under fire as never before.

In a recent speech about the virus that is spreading across the world, President Donald Trump crossed out the word “Corona” and replaced it with the word “Chinese”.

Many saw this as a needlessly belligerent and borderline racist thing to do. Since the start of the outbreak, East Asians have faced indefensible abuse.

But critics of the abuse also say the Chinese government has a lot to answer for.

Yesterday, for example, the Daily Mail’s front page read: “No 10’s fury at China’s lies”. Former Tory Party leader Ian Duncan Smith called on the UK to rethink its relationship with the world’s most populous country.

The virus is believed to have come from a bat, and spread to a human via a pangolin. Both of these animals were being sold at a live food or wet market in Wuhan, China.

A 2019 article by Chinese academics had warned it was “highly likely that future [...] coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats”. But no action was taken, and wet markets were allowed to stay open.

The first cases of Covid-19 were reported back in December, but the first doctors to identify it were reprimanded by Chinese authorities for spreading rumours. One of them, Li Wenliang, then died of the disease.

Chinese scientists had identified the virus genome as early as 2 January, but did not share this vital information with the rest of the world for 10 days. Wuhan was finally placed under a lockdown on 23 January.

During that delay, a massive Chinese Lunar New Year banquet took place and millions were allowed to leave the city.

Even President Xi Jinping was involved for weeks before any public announcements were made.

In failing to act swiftly, critics argue that Chinese authorities allowed the catastrophic coronavirus to spread outside the country’s borders.

Over 30,000 people have now died and infections have reached almost every country in the world.

But this also reflects how the disease is now a global – and not just a Chinese – problem. As many governments are discovering, it is very difficult to contain.

Indeed, few other countries have been able to deal with the threat of Covid-19 as effectively as China. And now, Chinese officials and philanthropists are helping medics across the world to contain the pandemic.

So, does China really deserve blame for Covid-19?

Fault lines

No. The virus knows no borders and knows no nationality. It does look like it started in China, but it was not deliberately unleashed. Though China could have perhaps done more, few other governments have fared better in their response to the outbreak. At a time when the world needs to come together to defeat a common enemy, blaming each other is an unhelpful distraction.

Yes. In the early days of the outbreak, the Chinese Communist Party lied about how much it knew and focused on silencing doctors instead of warning the world. Though it clearly had the means to contain the virus, it did not do so quickly enough, putting millions around the world at risk. China has also failed to regulate its wild food markets, which are probably behind this virus.

You Decide

  1. If you were a national leader, would you be looking to blame China?
  2. When something goes wrong in your life, is it ALWAYS best to admit it immediately?

Activities

  1. Get to know China by painting a cultural map of the country. Use your own key to include the major cities, rivers, regions, and monuments. Make it beautiful rather than trying to keep to scale.
  2. Imagine you are a foreign diplomat in China. Write a short letter to your government, highlighting what you believe China could have done better. Be careful not to write anything that might upset the Chinese authorities, otherwise you will be expelled.

Some People Say...

“Act decisively, China did – not against the virus, but against whistle-blowers who were trying to call attention to the public health threat.”

Nicholas D Kristof, US journalist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The virus appears to have started in China. It was covered up for a while. Then China responded with the full force of its centralised state, enforced a strict quarantine of its citizens, built giant hospitals in days, and has wrestled the virus under control with great success. Now, it is making and exporting vital protective equipment for the West.
What do we not know?
Whether there is anything to be gained in the long run by apportioning blame once the crisis is over. We can imagine a national report card that says something like this – China: guilty of an early cover-up; Italy: guilty of a chaotic response; UK: guilty of changing tack after a month; USA: guilty of being far too lax. And so on. But is pointing the finger at various governments likely to make the world a safer place for next time? Perhaps. And perhaps not.

Word Watch

Belligerent
Angry, aggressive, obtuse, looking for a fight.
Pangolin
Nocturnal, tree or burrow-dwelling mammal also known as a “scaly anteater”. Their meat and scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Wet market
Food market where the animals are still alive and are killed fresh once they have been bought.
Reprimanded
Told off, disciplined, punished.
Genome
Genetic material, or the organic code of an organism.
Chinese Lunar New Year
Chinese festival that celebrates the beginning of a New Year on the traditional Chinese calendar.
Xi Jinping
Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China. He has led the country since 2013.
Philanthropists
Wealthy people who donate their time, money, and reputation to charitable causes. Bill Gates is a famous example.
Fared
Performed in a certain way in a particular situation.

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