For the past three months and more, Covid-19 has ravaged the globe. Finding a vaccine is the world’s best hope of curbing the dramatic increase in the number of fatalities worldwide. This global health crisis proves once again that a strategy against a deadly virus must be based on science and on clear and unambiguous communication from a "united front”. Yet rather than working together, the discourse on the pandemic has focused on recriminations, not least directed at China, the country in which the disease was first detected.
The world running in circles
Where is the United Nations, more precisely the UN Security Council in this pandemic battle? To this day, this major global political organisation has remained silent. The past sessions have shown indecisions and members stranded in vacillating discussions. A UNSC resolution on the coronavirus outbreak apparently fell through after the US sought to point a finger at China for unleashing the coronavirus. These kinds of demarches — clearly part of Trump's strategy to disguise his responsibility for the late, messy response to the deadly virus domestically — are bound to be met by a Chinese veto.
In lieu of a global approach, pockets of action are in motion. At the extraordinary G20 summit held in late March, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for stronger international cooperation and for unity and solidarity. He said, "China will be more than ready to share our good practices, conduct joint research and development of drugs and vaccines, and provide assistance where we can to countries hit by the growing outbreak.”
Through an opinion piece in the Financial Times, five leaders — King Abdullah II of Jordan and presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Halimah Yacob of Singapore, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia and Lenín Moreno Garcés of Ecuador — made an appeal for global solidarity. While their call received little airplay, we can find the ingredients for quick action in their piece therein.
The leaders suggested that building on work of the World Health Organisation, the World Bank Group, the IMF, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the international vaccine alliances, philanthropic foundations, scientists and private sector pharmaceutical companies should join forces in a powerful partnership.
"we expect a vaccine could be ready for emergency use in early 2021.” - Paul Stoffels
This joining of forces should ensure, inter alia, that there is an equitable distribution of test kits and medical equipment, and that extreme efforts are put in to bring all means of help (vaccines, test kits and medication) to all corners of the world, to all those in need, including vulnerable populations and refugees. The leaders stressed “the immense benefits of a coordinated, co-operative global response to the crisis, focusing on the provision of an eventual treatment and a vaccine as an exemplary 'global public good’".
Governmental scientific institutions and private companies are working against time to produce a vaccine. Paul Stoffels, vice chairman of the executive committee and chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson emphasised the need for world solidarity when he said on 30 March, “We are very pleased to have identified a lead vaccine candidate from the constructs we have been working on since January. We are moving on an accelerated timeline toward phase 1 human clinical trials at the latest by September 2020 and, supported by the global production capability that we are scaling up in parallel to this testing, we expect a vaccine could be ready for emergency use in early 2021.”
China is a victim of the virus, but also a success story overcoming it, and it is willing to work with people of other countries to stop the spread of the pandemic.
The most notable appeal comes from a group of 100 Chinese academics. In an open letter published in The Diplomat on 2 April, they stressed that the US and China need to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. They expressed their gratitude for the help that the international community has given, including the donations of American friends, during the most critical phase of the fight against Covid-19 in mainland China. They also emphasised that they respect the epidemic control programmes and policies undertaken by individual countries.
They further pointed out the needless descent into finger-pointing: "At present, the exact source and origin of Covid-19 remain undetermined, but these questions are unimportant and finger-pointing is demeaning to everyone at this stage. In the end, we will all respect the final determination of scientists. Like others, China is a victim of the virus, but also a success story overcoming it, and it is willing to work with people of other countries to stop the spread of the pandemic."
The un-united European Union
In the absence of global organisations or great powers such as the US taking up the leadership mantle in this pandemic, some quarters have looked to the EU as a possible player. The Union of 27 countries, together accounting for over 400 million people, however, is caught in a dilemma. The US is still considered its most important ally. Namely, Europe is highly dependent on the US for military protection (against Russia). But the EU is also keen to do business with China. These conflicting dynamics are developing rapidly in countries such as Hungary, Greece and Poland, who are members of NATO and have defence cooperation agreements with the US, but are also eager to capitalise on economic opportunities by leaning towards China.
Under the neoliberal capitalist flag and armed with an almost irrational refusal to show more understanding for the Chinese approach, countries often have distorted reactions and take unjustified punitive measures against China.
More prosperous EU countries are also getting stuck in this quandary, according to a European Think-tank Network on China report titled “Europe in the Face of US-China Rivalry”. While China is seen as an important partner on many global issues, such as tackling climate change, several European governments share the highly critical — and bipartisan — view of the US, about the centrally-led Chinese political-economic system. The meritocratic system within the Chinese leadership, legislative and executive power is confronted with a complete disregard because of a Western superiority thinking.
Under the neoliberal capitalist flag and armed with an almost irrational refusal to show more understanding for the Chinese approach, countries often have distorted reactions and take unjustified punitive measures against China. Partly as a result of this, China's global cooperation proposals and projects, such as the Belt & Road Initiative, are also facing disproportionate opposition.
There is a deafening silence in European circles when China calls for global cooperation, as President Xi Jinping recently did at the G20 summit.
But the Trump administration and its ultra-liberal policy are not perceived very kindly either because they collide with European interests and values. There are the issues of NATO funding imposed on the Union, and various import duties. Now, in this pandemic, the unilateral decision to impose a travel ban on European countries, and the US literally outbidding and pinching contracts for mouth masks cause frictions.
Little by little, more and more European countries have been trying to develop and improve their economic cooperation with China. In recent years, partly due to Trump's policy, the European focus has been more on the strategic dimensions and visible performance of Chinese investments.
In the fight against the pandemic, this ambiguous position of the majority of Western European countries is becoming clear. There is a deafening silence in European circles when China calls for global cooperation, as President Xi Jinping recently did at the G20 summit.
EU President Charles Michel and the European leadership were barely visible. Rather than creating a unified command of European countries and setting up all the necessary extraordinary measures and organisational structures so that the EU could be a strong partner in the global fight against the virus, EU leaders had only flaccid comments and expressed weak intentions.
The demand for a unified approach to the pandemic in Europe was, however, strong when the EU government leaders met at the end of March via video conference about their common response. In the European debt crisis (2010) and the migration crisis (since 2015), the EU member states had worked together to prevent “things from getting worse” and to make the Union (what's in a name) stronger. But now several governments have to take into account nationalists and rightist populists who accuse the EU of abandoning “their country” on the one hand, and undermine the EU in every way possible on the other. Fancy words are now used by national governments and the EU institutions in the current health crisis, such as they are determined “to do everything necessary”.
At the 26 March video conference, European heads of state and government decided to give Eurozone finance ministers two weeks to elaborate proposals in response to the financial and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. There was a bitter and cynical sparring match between ailing countries, Spain and Italy — where the virus wreaked the greatest havoc — on one hand and the Netherlands on the other. Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra's saying no to unconditional European support was labelled by Portuguese premier Antonio Costa as: "Disgusting. Pointless. Totally unacceptable... This recurring pettiness threatens the future of the EU. ”
The announced financial aid package — about 500 billion euros — seems big, but pales before the 1,173 billion that Germany has earmarked for itself.
This mudslinging in the EU consultations lasted for days. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) turned out to be the biggest divide. Anyone wanting loans from this emergency fund set up after the euro crisis would normally have to agree to strict reforms. The Dutch demand that the EU adhere to this principle in the coronavirus crisis too proved unsustainable after three days of infighting. Hoekstra had to let go, but he also won something: ESM loans, it was decided, are in principle only available for the financing of “care, cure and prevention directly or indirectly related to the coronavirus".
The announced financial aid package — about 500 billion euros — seems big, but pales in comparison to the 1,173 billion that Germany has earmarked for itself. Economists from several European think tanks are critical. "The package is already late, too limited and does not come anywhere near the kind of support that, for example, the US federal government is able to mobilise", an analysis piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad wrote.
Who made up the numbers on purpose?
Disinformation can exacerbate suffering. In the middle of a global health crisis, doubts are cast on the numbers of fatalities. How low can one sink? In Europe, fortunately not in the public arena, there is a debate about the accuracy of numbers. Which victims are counted? Only casualties tested for Covid-19 or people who succumbed to underlying Covid-19 symptoms? In Belgium and the Netherlands, an additional issue is that the numbers of deaths in residential care centres were not collected daily and systematically.
But what to make of the CIA claim that Chinese death toll numbers are false? Reporting directly to the president, it claimed that the Chinese authorities are lying about the numbers of the dead in Wuhan and without a shred of evidence, gave sensation-hungry media a field day. On the basis of some guesswork and images of long lines of people collecting the urns of their deceased loved ones (after the long period of lockdown in Wuhan and on the occasion of the Qingming Festival), conservative American media spread the canard... like a virus.
It is disquieting that the Chinese ambassador to France had to devote time to refuting such tasteless propaganda. Ambassador Lu Shaye clarified things in a TV interview with French digital-international BFM channel, a media outlet deemed controversial for its populism and sensationalism. The ambassador said the total number of deaths in Wuhan in 2019 was 51,200. Because more people die during winter, there were about 5,000 "regular" deaths per month in January and February 2020 going by past statistics. Hence, Wuhan counted more than 2,000 Covid-19 deaths.
During the lockdown in Wuhan which started on January 23, there were no burial ceremonies. It was therefore not unusual for the families of 10,000 other "regularly" deceased people to be invited together with the relatives of the more than 2,000 Covid-19 deceased when the urns were transferred. (Note)
How much time did China actually lose?
Certain politicians and journalists reiterated that the Chinese government lost precious time in the early days of the pandemic and had looked the other way. However, sources such as the WHO reports and articles from media outlets such as Newsweek, China Daily and The Financial Times show that China had responded quickly and accurately, and that international institutions were informed very early on in the process.
According to a Global Times article reporting on the findings of an investigation into the death of whistleblower doctor Dr Li Wenliang, on 27 December, Dr Zhang Jixian of the Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine reported three patients suffering from pneumonia of an unknown cause in hospital. The same day, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention arranged epidemiological research and testing. On 29 December, the same hospital reported another four patients with the same unknown pneumonia, all from the Huanan Seafood Market district.
A notable incident occurred on 4 January, 2020. The director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention called the director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They discussed the outbreak of the strange pneumonia.
On 30 December, experts from Wuhan's Health Commission opened an investigation and sent two short reports recommending that patients be treated for “pneumonia of unknown causes”. The two documents were forwarded online to a limited group of concerned doctors and senior management bodies of the National Health Commission.
Around 5.30 pm, Dr Li Wenliang received the message from his colleagues. At 5.43 PM, Dr Li Wenliang forwarded the messages "Seven cases of SARS are confirmed at the Huanan seafood market" and "The patients are isolated in the emergency service in our hospital” in his WeChat group (classmates from his medical school). At 6.42 pm, he posted another message: "The latest news is that the infection has been confirmed, and the virus is under investigation. Please do not spread the information and let family members pay attention to prevention."
According to a Scientific American article, on the same day, Wuhan-based virologist Dr Shi Zhengli, who was in Shanghai at the time, was informed at around 7 pm of the seven patients with pneumonia, the cause of which was unknown. She quickly took a train back to Wuhan and returned to her investigation on whether a new coronavirus was the root virus.
On 3 January, Dr Li Wenliang was reprimanded by the local police for spreading "rumours" about the outbreak of the virus.
A notable incident occurred on 4 January, 2020. The director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention called the director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They discussed the outbreak of the strange pneumonia. Both agreed to maintain close contact, share information and collaborate technologically.
The Scientific American article further says that on 7 January, 2020, the result of Dr Shi Zhengli's lab research was finally ready: coronavirus SARS-Cov-2 (related to the SARS virus) caused the lung infections. The genetic code of the virus is 96% identical to that of a coronavirus identified by Dr Shi Zhengli's team in horseshoe bats in Yunnan Province. The results also indicate that human-to-human transmission may be very rapid.
Based on the WHO situation report of 21 January:
- The Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus, which was isolated on 7 January 2020
- On 11 and 12 January 2020, the WHO received further detailed information from the National Health Commission China that the outbreak is associated with exposures in one seafood market in Wuhan City
- On 12 January 2020, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus for countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits
Dutch microbiologist Rosanne Herzberger said in an interview with Flemish newspaper De Standaard, that Chinese scientists "found the genetic code of the virus very quickly and shared it with the whole world". Scientists everywhere could then use it to conduct research, among other things with the aim of developing diagnostic tests.
And about pointing fingers and assigning blame, she said: “… let's face it, MERS comes from the Middle East, flu often comes from birds, HIV comes from monkeys in Africa. It is over-optimistic to say: 'We know the cause of all our problems, it must be China.’ There is an inclination to try and find guilty parties. But who can be blamed for this?”
Global cooperation and solidarity is needed
The start of the pandemic timeline shows how quickly Chinese authorities responded bottom-up and top-down. After roughly one week, the WHO was informed and in the meantime the US — at least its National Health Service — was also informed. That this quick and efficient response has come about is due to the procedures and protocols that China, many other countries that have experienced SARS, MERS and Ebola epidemics, and the WHO have prepared for worst-case scenarios.
Allegations that the Chinese government wasted time and thus shifted coronavirus misery to the rest of the world are therefore incorrect and serves a hidden agenda. On the contrary, China has gained time — precisely by responding so quickly — for the world.
But more importantly, this systematic, unfounded and, near perverse continual maligning of China cannot be described otherwise than political hooliganism, as alluded to in the Global Times article "CIA is US Govt’s Pawn to Fabricate Lies about China". Surely, it can hardly be intended that a "systemic rival" (as the EU has labelled China) is undermined in order to block solidarity in this global health crisis? It is precisely global solidarity cooperation that is urgent and vital for producing a “vaccine for everyone”, because that seems to be the only option to conquer the virus.
The plot thickens as the French Foreign Office called Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye in this week to express France’s displeasure at an article put up on the Chinese embassy in France website.
The post, allegedly written by a Chinese diplomat, claims that France left its elderly to die in nursing homes and that 80 French parliamentarians conspired with Taiwan to make derogatory remarks about WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has denied that China criticised France’s coronavirus measures but the issue looks set to fester for a while yet with the French senate calling for an explanation from the French Foreign Minister as to why the post has not been removed even after the Chinese Ambassador was summoned.
Meanwhile, China has revised its official count of deaths from the coronavirus on 17 April, adding some 1,290 deaths in Wuhan. The addition brings the total number of deaths in the city to 3,869, an increase of 50%. The nationwide death toll now stands at 4,636.
According to Chinese state media, the additional deaths were all counted in Wuhan and the late reporting of deaths are due to several reasons, including patients who died at home without seeing a doctor or being tested for the virus as hospitals were overwhelmed during the epidemic’s peak.