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World must treat virus, not China, as enemy

By Kuoyou Watson | | Updated: 2020-04-29 15:18
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While much of the world is still fighting COVID-19 and in need of solidarity more than ever, it is distressing to see US politicians mudslinging at China, claiming the latter is responsible for the epidemic because it had not been transparent in sharing information. Adding to the fire is a conspiracy theory swirling around some quarters suggesting that the virus was created in a Chinese lab. As if this did not provide enough distraction, lawsuits were filed recently in US federal district courts seeking damages for deaths, injuries and losses caused by COVID-19. Similar rumblings have been reportedly heard in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Such an outburst of negative energy is puzzling because it represents a shift in tone with respect to China's handling of the outbreak. Back in February, the US administration had nothing but praise for China's effort to contain the epidemic and its openness in sharing information. CNN even made a count of how many times the country's hard work, transparency and capability were acknowledged and appreciated – a dozen times in February alone.

The US administration wasn't being generous back then; they were simply acknowledging the facts. Since the epidemic broke out in Wuhan late last December, China quickly isolated the pathogen, completed its genome sequencing, developed treatment manuals and testing kits and created and updated guidelines for prevention and control measures. To choke human-to-human transmission, the country took the drastic measure of locking down the city on Jan 23. By late January, medical teams and resources were arriving from across the country to help fight the epidemic. New hospitals were built in a matter of days to accommodate patients. By mid-March, phased, measured reopening of the economy began.

And China had been transparent, sharing information with the rest of the world while battling on the ground. The country notified the WHO of the outbreak on Dec 31. Its prompt sharing of the virus's genetic sequence enabled other countries to diagnose patients quickly. Throughout February and March, the Chinese leadership talked over the phone with leaders of France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and other countries from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa, updating them on the latest situation, exchanging information and practices and exploring areas for cooperation. A detail worth noting is that over a period of a month starting Jan 3, China briefed the United States 30 times on the outbreak and its response. In fact, by as early as Feb 7, key players charged with US public health decision-making – from Director of the US Centers for Disease Control Robert Redfield, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Director of the US NIAID Anthony Fauci to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – all had been in contact with the Chinese, exchanging information and talking about cooperation in epidemic prevention and control.

The Chinese government's unreserved openness in keeping the rest of the world informed was matched by the valuable contribution Chinese researchers made toward our understanding of the novel coronavirus through dozens of published papers, analyses and reports, and the forthright sharing of experience by Chinese health officials and experts at scores of multilateral gatherings.

China's fight against COVID-19 did not stop at home. From Feb 29 to March 30, China sent groups of experts to Iran, Iraq, Italy, Serbia, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos and Venezuela to help fight coronavirus in these countries. It supported many others by donating or supplying medical equipment and supplies as ventilators, testing kits, gowns, gloves and masks.

Given China's open, transparent and responsible handling of the epidemic both within and beyond its borders, how to account for the US administration's about-face? In a Fox News interview on Monday, Pompeo again accused China of failing to be transparent and cooperate concerning COVID-19. A look at the context offers some clue. In February, China was "not in good shape", and politicians felt they could spare some sympathy. By mid-March, however, the pendulum had swung the other way, with cases of infection skyrocketing in New York City. Soon people were dying so fast that refrigeration trucks were called in to serve as temporary morgues. Shortages of testing kits, PPE, hospital beds and frontline workers hampered response efforts. For close to two months, Americans had been told the novel coronavirus was just like the common flu and the situation was under control. On March 13, a national emergency was declared. By April 27, cumulative cases had topped one million, making the United States the most infected country.

A world in the throes of a pandemic needs cooperation and a coordinated response to humanity's common enemy, not a witch hunt to help politicians deflect criticism. It's time to quit playing the blame game, stop spreading the lab origin conspiracy theory already discredited by the country's own top epidemiologist, and cease filing lawsuits that lack any ground in jurisprudence.

Here, Canada can play a new role. For years Canada has followed the US in relations with China. This policy has not always served Canada's interests well, as the US beggar-thy-neighbor behavior in recent NAFTA renegotiations, the Huawei investigation and the current pandemic reminds us. At a time of profound, rapid change only those with vision and courage will endure and thrive. It is refreshing to see Canada beginning to chart an independent course. Let's hope it will grow into a distinct voice amidst all the noise.

The author has a master's degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge. He currently teaches in Canada and contributes to the press on current events.

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