When will the Chinese government be held accountable for the spread of coronavirus?

Marcus Kolga: Canada will have to work with our allies to assess the Chinese government’s responsibility when it comes to the spread of coronavirus and to ensure that they are held to account where appropriate

By Marcus Kolga March 17, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visits patients who are being treated and sends regards to medical workers who have been fighting the epidemic on the front line day and night, encouraging them to firm up confidence in defeating the epidemic, by video calls at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, on Mar. 10, 2020. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire/CP)

Marcus Kolga is a strategic digital communications strategist, human rights activist and expert on foreign disinformation. He is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre of Advancing Canadian Interests Abroad.

On Sunday night, the two remaining Democratic Presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, entered a sparse CNN studio for a one-on-one debate, in which the venue, context, and substances were all unsurprisingly hijacked by the coronavirus pandemic. Among the top issues were how millions of Americans would endure economic stresses caused by the outbreak and what the United States government should do to overcome it, especially with the projected costs running into the trillions of dollars.

One of the debate’s most interesting moments came when CNN reporter Dana Bash asked the two candidates: “What consequences should China face for its role in this global crisis?”

Responsibility is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party government has been avoiding since the initial outbreak in Wuhan. Most notably, Dr. Li Wenliang raised concerns about the virus in December and was in turn detained by Chinese authorities and forced to sign a confession of making “false comments” and disturbing “the social order.” The virus would eventually take his life in February.

MORE: Watch China build two enormous Wuhan hospitals at a breakneck pace

While Bernie Sanders might be forgiven for naively blurting out that “now is the time to be working with China,” the Chinese government has offered little evidence to suggest that closer cooperation would lead to a solution. Conversely, Beijing’s mishandling and negligence has directly enabled the spread of this pandemic.

China’s primary motivation throughout has been to avoid any responsibility or accountability by deflecting blame and suppressing criticism since day one. So effective has the Chinese campaign been that even foreign governments (including here in Canada) have remained largely silent about China’s role. The instinct of any totalitarian state like China is to cover up anything that might require them to take responsibility. 

During the initial coronavirus outbreak, authorities in Wuhan stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” Yet, as first noted in a January study in The Lancet, more than a third of patients had no connections to the Wuhan food market, and people started to become ill weeks before the government would admit. 

MORE: Canada is being bullied by China. Here’s how it can shut it down.

But the obfuscation goes deeper. Instead of informing its own people and the world, about the threat early on, the Chinese government contributed directly to the global pandemic we face today through politically motivated manipulation and active disinformation. By lying about the virus’s initial spread, including by not acknowledging human-to-human transmission when it was quite clearly happening, and by prioritizing political stability over human health, China’s actions directly led to the massive spread of the virus.

The first case of the virus likely occurred in mid-November, 2019. While identifying a novel virus of course takes time, Taiwan identified the outbreak and banned flights from Hubei before the end of 2019. By comparison, before China finally acknowledged the gravity of the situation in late January, some five million people left Hubei, allowing the disease to spread throughout China and the world.  

To put a finer point on this: had China acted when Taiwan took action (when it was already apparent that a crisis was upon Wuhan),  the spread of the virus could have been reduced by some 95 per cent. While it is also true that many Western countries are failing in tragic fashion, thousands of lives, in China and around the world, would have been saved had China put aside its politics and acted swiftly. 

Chinese authorities had this information and data but refused to release it in a timely manner, instead preferring an ever-changing narrative about the outbreak that made medical assessments on the coronavirus and its impact very difficult. Crucial weeks were lost that could have helped to contain the country-wide and later global spread of this virus. 

Most recently, Chinese government propagandists have promoted a bizarre story about the outbreak in Wuhan being caused by the United States Army. This latest conspiracy, reported by Eto Buziashvili of the Atlantic Council, is seemingly inspired by the KGB’s Operation Infektion from the 1980s, which involved the KGB planting a story in a pro-Kremlin newspaper in India where it was claimed that HIV/AIDS was developed in a CIA laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. The Russian disinformation campaign eventually metastasized within the U.S. media environment, eventually reaching mainstream U.S. national news in 1983.

Buziashvili reports that stories about the U.S. army introducing coronavirus in Wuhan were planted on pro-Kremlin platforms in January, and have since spread to fringe western pro-totalitarian conspiracy theory platforms, including one based in Montreal.  Those stories have since been amplified by Chinese government officials, including Zhao Lijian (the deputy director of Foreign Ministry Information Department) who posted it on Twitter, and further promoted by the Chinese Communist Party controlled social media platform, WeChat.

Such aggressive Chinese government disinformation about the coronavirus is being deliberately promoted to draw attention away from Beijing’s own responsibility for the global pandemic.

While Western governments must maintain their focus on addressing the immediate outbreak, we cannot allow the Chinese government to confuse and reframe our understanding of this pandemic and to manipulate the eventual reckoning that must occur once the threat ebbs.

The cost to overcome this pandemic crisis will be steep, regardless of the physical toll it imposes on our nation. In the coming months, Canada will have to work with our allies to assess the Chinese government’s responsibility and ensure that they are held to account where appropriate. This should include compensation for economic losses by Canadian workers, businesses and our government, and economic sanctions against any Chinese officials deemed negligent in failing to stop the outbreak in China.

Canadians, media and our government must continue repeating Dana Bash’s question, “what consequences should China face for its role in this global crisis?”

Beijing’s credibility deficit makes the coronavirus crisis much worse

Terry Glavin: Never mind bogus web stories. The most egregious purveyor of ‘fake news’ about the outbreak has been the Chinese government itself

Reasonable people will be unsurprised to discover that the coronavirus strain that has killed at least 425 people in China, jolted the global economy and set off public-health sirens from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow did not go astray from the contents of a top-secret biological weapon that online conspiracy theorists say a Chinese spy stole last year from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

It is quite true that the biologist Xiangguo Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng and some Chinese students were barred from the high-level virology laboratory last July 5. It was a disturbing event, and the surrounding circumstances remain a bit opaque. But no, the Wuhan novel coronavirus now named 2019-nCoV was not hatched in Winnipeg.

It is similarly untrue that you can inoculate yourself against the virus by drinking bleach and lemon juice in a certain “miracle cure” solution popular among anti-vaccination zealots. Also, if you catch the virus, despite what you might have heard, you won’t do yourself any good by resorting to an internet-rumour concoction involving sesame oil, vitamin C and garlic.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What Canadians need to know

The Public Health Agency of Canada has joined dozens of reputable government agencies, non-governmental organizations and the World Health Organization in efforts to staunch the hemorrhage of half-true and false and completely deranged claims and theories that have been sloshing around ever since the occurrence of a strange and deadly new virus appeared to be the culprit in a sickness first noticed by the authorities in the metropolis of Wuhan, in central China, in early December.

But a lie can travel half way around the world, as the old saying goes, before the truth has had time to put its trousers on. It’s all well and good for Twitter and Facebook and Snopes and FactCheck.org to join with public health agencies in the effort to shut down or otherwise excise the hysterics and falsehoods making the rounds. The more serious challenge is that the most egregious and brazen author of “fake news” and propaganda and outright lies about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is the Chinese government itself.

You might have thought that Beijing would have learned its lesson from the last major coronavirus event—the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Guangdong that began in November 2002. The Chinese government’s mishandling of the SARS crisis—its obsessive censorship, its cover-ups, its refusal to share data with other countries—disgraced the regime. The SARS virus spread to 25 countries over an eight-month period, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing 774 of them.

Two weeks ago, Peter Cordingley, the public voice of the World Health Organization during the SARS crisis, pointed out that the SARS crisis appears to have taught the Chinese authorities nothing. “I’m seeing precisely the same reckless behaviour now,” he wrote, and in any case, Beijing has been “lying about the spread of the Wuhan flu virus from the start.”

READ MORE: The science of novel coronavirus

And now, as of Tuesday morning, after less than two months—a quarter of the time to took for SARS to run its course—the Wuhan coronavirus has already infected roughly four times number of Chinese people who fell ill with the SARS virus. The Wuhan virus has already killed more Chinese people than SARS did. Tuesday’s death toll is four times what it was a week ago. Tuesday’s official count of 20,438 confirmed cases is 3,235 more than Monday’s count.

But there’s little reason to believe that the Chinese government’s reporting comes close to the reality on the ground. According to an analysis published last week by the British medical journal, the Lancet, roughly 75,000 people were likely already infected by the Wuhan virus by Jan. 28.

The New York Times reports that the apparently low official count of infections in Wuhan—the completely locked-down metropolitan epicentre of the outbreak—may well be just a reflection of the scarcity of test kits available to medical workers in the city. Local residents say that deaths are going unreported, that the sick and the dying are being turned away from hospitals and that some victims are just quietly dying at home.

The first case of the new coronavirus was discovered Dec. 8, but it took the Wuhan Health Commission weeks to publicly report it. And even after Jan. 11, the commission was still insisting that the virus could not be passed between people, even though dozens of cases had been confirmed by then.

During those first critical weeks, references to the sickness in Wuhan were ruthlessly expunged by China’s state censors from popular platforms like WeChat. It was only after the crisis had blown wide open that the authorities allowed social-media users to mention it.

“What is clear is that China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak means that thousands have been infected,” Minxin Pei, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote in the South China Morning Post, “and the economy, already weakened by debt and the trade war, will take another hit.”

RELATED: Watch China build two enormous Wuhan hospitals at a breakneck pace

In Wuhan and neighbouring cities in Hubei province, 35 million people—the population of Canada—are effectively under a kind of house arrest. No non-emergency movement is permitted in the province, and the authorities in Beijing are now focusing on propaganda to the effect that the crisis is very real, but very much in hand. Legitimate news coverage is suppressed, and the most senior authorities are engaged in circulating their own brand of “fake news.”

The Communist Party organs Global Times and Peoples Daily both published photographs of what was purported to be a gleaming brand-new hospital magically constructed within days in Wuhan. The hospital in the picture turned out to be a photograph of a modular apartment complex in Qingdao.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry official Hua Chunying blasted the United States for its temporary ban on travelers from China and claimed that “the U.S. government has not provided any substantive help to the Chinese side yet.”

In fact, the U.S. is not alone in imposing a travel ban. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Pakistan, Russia and Italy have followed suit. Hong Kong has closed all but three of its 16 ports of entry with mainland China. And China itself has ring-fenced Hubei province from the rest of the country.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, second from left, speaks in Hong Kong during a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak (Jerrome Favre/EPA)

And the U.S has offered China help. The U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has made several offers to send a team from the Centers for Disease Control to Wuhan to help out, but Beijing has failed to respond.

On Monday, Canada earned the dubious distinction of being contrasted with the United States and thanked and congratulated by China’s foreign ministry. Ottawa earned its pat on the head by following the example of China-compliant states in Southeast Asia and allowing flights from China to continue, with airport screening awaiting arrivals. But while the United States, Australia and South Korea were allowed to quickly evacuate their citizens from Hubei, Canada waited for days on Beijing’s approval to evacuate more than 300 Canadians stuck there. (Ottawa finally got the green light on Tuesday for a flight that wouldn’t depart for another two days.)

RELATED: The Trudeau government’s high noon moment with Beijing

Upon their return, the stranded Canadians are expected to be quarantined at Trenton Canadian Forces base for two weeks.

As for where the Wuhan coronavirus came from, early speculation that it was an open-air market in Wuhan that traffics in wild meat got a bit of a boost on Monday. It is not true that a video circulating on social media depicting a woman eating a bat was filmed recently in Wuhan. In fact the video was filmed in 2016 in Palau, in Micronesia.

But a study published in the journal Nature on Monday reports that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has determined that the new coronavirus is 96 per cent genetically identical to a virus found in bats from China’s Yunnan province, and 80 per cent genetically similar to the SARS virus from 2002 and 2003.

Meanwhile, the controversial Israeli rabbi Matityahu Glazerson has been expounding upon his thesis that by application of a sort of “code” to analyze biblical texts, the Wuhan virus can be seen to have been predicted in the Torah. Which seems implausible.

A competing internet rumour proposes that the Wuhan virus was in fact predicted in a 1993 episode of the cartoon sitcom The Simpsons, a claim that to no reasonable person’s surprise has turned out to be false.