As more and more countries ask for a probe (see here, here and here) into the origins of Covid-19, which has infected over 3.5 million people and led to 250,000 deaths globally, China has begun attempts to counter the backlash. Recent reports of cases being identified earlier than previously thought from countries such as France and Italy have added ammunition to China’s arsenal.
Doctors at a French hospital have said a patient admitted in December had coronavirus. The French government is looking at the case.
While US President Donald Trump has claimed without furnishing proof that the coronavirus outbreak is linked to a lab in Wuhan, Australia and the UK have called for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus. Reutersreported this week that an internal Chinese report has warned that Beijing faces a rising wave of hostility and concluded that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
China, which is also dealing with growing anger and demands of accountability from its citizens, has been vociferously denying Trump’s accusations. It is now responding to the new reports of early possible cases in other countries and calling for an “apolitical” probe into them.
Chenchen Zhang, a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen’s University Belfast, told HuffPost India that while China’s attempts to shift the blame will not work well internationally and may even worsen hostility from other countries, it could help convince its own people.
“For the domestic audience, highlighting and interpreting these cases as indicating the virus likely originated outside China can further shift attention away from the Chinese government’s responsibility in mishandling the outbreak in the earliest days,” Chenchen Zhang said over email.
The New York Times has reported that China is cracking down on citizens asking the ruling Communist Party to account for what went wrong in Wuhan. The report said that lawyers have been warned not to file any suit against the government and police have interrogated bereaved family members who connected with others online. In March, Wuhan residents shouted “it’s all fake,” “we protest” during a visit by a top Chinese official.
Some experts think it might not be that easy for the Chinese government to quell internal rumbling like it normally does.
Sonika Gupta, Associate Professor in Chinese Studies and Global Politics, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, told HuffPost India that China has always dealt with internal dissent in an efficiently brutal fashion and this pandemic is no different.
“Given the severity of the pandemic in China, it does not seem possible that the Chinese Communist Party can create a narrative of victimhood, as it has always done with regard to international crises. The attention of the Chinese population, like in any other country, is focussed on the track record of the government in dealing with the crisis,” she said.
Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, was quoted as saying to CGTN, “Now we have discovered earlier cases in multiple places around the world and we know that there are many laboratories worldwide which are less open and transparent and have fewer international cooperation projects than the Wuhan virus institute. Some laboratories are even mysterious. If some people want to investigate the Wuhan virus institute, then they need to investigate those labs too.”
The state-runGlobal Times has also called for “apolitical scientific tracing of virus” after reports of possible earlier cases in France. It quoted an expert, Cui Hongjian, as saying that it would help in the development of a vaccine, dispel rumors and avoid politicising the issue.
Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, also told Global Times that Wuhan was one region where the coronavirus broke out, but it was unconfirmed whether it was the birthplace or sole birthplace of the virus.
Yang was also quoted by Global Times as saying that scientific research showed the coronavirus had genetic differences in different regions around the globe and seemingly separate pathogenicity and lethality and therefore, it would support the theory that the virus broke out of multiple regions not just China.
Cui Tiankai wrote forThe Washington Post on Wednesday and said that an “unnecessary burden has been distracting our focus and undercutting international efforts to curb the virus: the absurd mind-set of ‘always blame China’”.
He called for an end to blaming China for the pandemic. “It is this blame-shifting that needs transparency.”
Pradeep Taneja, who teaches Chinese politics, political economy and international relations at the University of Melbourne, told HuffPost India that Chinese state media and officials are trying to divert the attention of the citizens by blaming foreign governments for being ungrateful.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s instinctive response to foreign criticism is to whip up nationalistic rhetoric. But nationalism is a double-edged sword. By provoking anti-Western sentiments, the CPC is risking a backlash against its own handling of the crisis and the economic hardships that Chinese people are likely to face in the post-COVID-19 period,” he added.
What are the possible earlier cases?
A French hospital, while retesting old samples from pneumonia patients, found that it treated a man with the coronavirus as early as 27 December. Dr Yves Cohen, head of resuscitation at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris, told BFM TV that the patient was sick for 15 days and infected his two children but not his wife.
The man, he said, had not made any trips and only came in contact with his wife. Cohen, according toBBC, said that the patient’s wife worked at a supermarket near Charles de Gaulle airport and could have come into contact with people who had arrived from China. The patient’s wife said that “often customers would come directly from the airport, still carrying their suitcases,” the report added.
The French government is looking at the case. The New York Times pointed out that while doctors who made the finding said that they are confident in it and that they tested the patient’s old sample twice to avoid false positives, they also “acknowledged that they could not completely rule out that possibility”.
The doctors, the report added, also cautioned that without further analysis of the sample, it was unclear whether his case was tied in any way to the epidemic that arrived later.
The World Health Organisation said its China Country Office was informed about cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan on 31 December, 2019. Official statements by the Chinese government to the WHO reported that the first confirmed case had been diagnosed on 8 December,The Guardian noted.
Meanwhile, Italian researchers are also looking at possible earlier cases of coronavirus in the country. Adriano Decarli, an epidemiologist and medical statistics professor at the University of Milan, toldReuters that there had been a “significant” increase in the number of people hospitalised for pneumonia and flu in the areas of Milan and Lodi between October and December last year.
He is now reviewing those cases to understand if Covid-19 had already spread to Italy back then.
However, some experts are skeptical about the spread of coronavirus in Europe before January. “I think it extremely unlikely that the virus was present in Europe before January,” Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia who has been tracking the evolving pandemic, told Reuters.
Hunter said that unless Italian scientists get positive results from samples taken and stored at that time, the suggestion should not be given credence.
(With inputs from Reuters)