It is difficult to tell who is winning the Sino-American Coronavirus diplomatic battle. Two weeks ago, I would have put the US in the lead. They had successfully poured ice water on Chinese claims to have successfully suppressed the spread of the virus in China. It is now generally accepted that the Chinese statistics are extremely dubious.
This week the pendulum has swung the other way. The reason is the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly which—unsurprisingly—was dominated by the pandemic.
The pendulum received a gentle push from the European Union which successfully proposed a full and independent investigation into the causes, spread, handling and consequences of coronavirus as well as a report into how best to deal with a repeat crisis.
On the surface, this would appear to be a victory for the Trump Administration who have been loud on their accusations—despite all evidence to the contrary– that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab from whence it reached the community by accident or intent. The Chinese have been even more outrageous with their leading conspiracy theory: America developed the virus and despatched US military personnel to Wuhan to spread a COVID paste on hundreds of Chinese doorknobs.
The EU proposal carefully avoids pointing an accusing finger at any party. Its primary purpose is to learn lessons so that future mistakes are avoided. But any investigation will have the secondary effect of undermining conspiracy theories which will make President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo look ridiculous.
China is not the only target of the Trump Administration. They are also attacking the World Health Organisation (WHO) which they accuse of being a pawn of Beijing. Part of the reason for this attack is that China and the WHO were slow in identifying the virus, going public with their concerns and declaring a pandemic.
The exact date of the first case is unknown. It was probably in November. But is almost certain is that at the start doctors had no idea what it was; how contagious it was; how serious it would become or even when it was transmitted from human to human. How could they know? They had no experience of COVID-19. It did not exist in humans anywhere in the world before November-December 2019.
It is true that there were initial, short-lived, attempts at a cover-up. The sad case of whistleblowing doctor, Li Wen Liang, is the most poignant example. But the public reaction and political and economic consequences of previous epidemics doubtless made the Chinese wary of the dangers of over-reacting until they were certain of the threat to public health. Other governments have been less than transparent in their handling of the crisis. Boris Johnson’s government is being accused of massaging statistics on testing and tracking and protection of vulnerable patients in care homes.
There is, however, a much wider issue. Coronavirus is being used by both Washington and Beijing to tout the superiority of their competing political systems by attacking the other. Governments around the world are being asked to back either the American or Chinese version of the pandemic in the full knowledge that their position will have a knock-on effect on business and military support from one of the two powers. It’s a bit like the old Soviet-American Cold War.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor.