Till date, the pandemic of Covid-19 has taken a toll of millions. With approximately 4.46 million Covid-19 cases reported worldwide, and the numbers increasing every single day, this pandemic has sufficiently challenged our capabilities. With hardly any part of the globe remaining unscathed from this calamity, the post-Covid-19 world will not be the same. While the majority of the world has united in this fight against the pandemic and the advancements in medical research will hopefully soon result in its containment, what will remain with humankind is a vital experience for the future incidents.
The origin of Covid-19 has been traced to a seafood market in the Chinese commercial city of Wuhan. Despite speculations about SARS-CoV-2 having been lab engineered, till date no proof consolidates it. A scientific study published in the journal, Nature Medicine, has ruled out the possibility of the responsible virus SARS-CoV-2 being man-made or a biological weapon leaked through a lab. According to World Health Organisation’s (WHO), by December 31,, 2019, cases of pneumonia were reported in only a few clusters of Hubei province, while by January 5, 2020 the causative agent was not identified as a new virus. A week after this, it crossed the boundaries of China and the first case was reported outside of China in Thailand. On January 14, WHO announced a limited human to human transmission of this virus. Finally, it was on March 11, 2020 that WHO declared it as a pandemic. From the detection of the first few cases, to its culmination into a global pandemic, the possible failures in handling and the resulting socio-economic cost (impact) to human life have been a the subject of relentless discussion.
SARS vs Covid-19: Economic development is the key for epidemic turned to pandemic
China suffered SARS in 2002 caused by SARS-CoV virus. It was an epidemic that affected 26 countries with a global death toll of around 8000 individuals. This stands in no comparison to the current statistics of covid19 which reported 4633 deaths in China and 300,000 deaths in the world and counting (till 14th May 2020). SARS and Covid-19, both diseases have demonstrated similar signs and symptoms. Hence, a major question arises – why Covid-19 turned into a pandemic in 2020 while SARS had a local effect in 2002?
The economic development of China can be taken into account. In the intervening period of about 20 years GDP of People’s Republic of China has jumped from 1.47 trillion to 14.3 trillion. Today, China is the home to the highest number of middle-class families, with around 400 million people who can financially afford any wild or exotic meat from wet markets and travel around the world. Reports indicate, Chinese tourists had made over 6 million trips to Europe in year 2018. China is not just a world’s factory but has also established many mighty multinational companies in areas of IT, finance and construction. Their offices spread across all parts of the globe. With a global market at its disposition, and active businesses across every continent, global spread of Covid-19 can be attributed to both tourism and business-related movements of Chinese work forces. Despite the growing concern, the Chinese work forces were neither screened nor tracked at Chinese checkpoints, upon outbreak of Covid-19. The concern however, is why Chinese authorities turned a blind eye? Was it deliberate or with calculated risk?
Who is accountable for loss: China or WHO
Disease outbreak can emerge anywhere, but can anyone be held responsible for the failure in containing it? What are the roles of multilateral organisations in regulating or controlling it? Few international bodies e.g., United Nations (UN) have been targeted from time to time for their biases, for example, UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Despite article 40 of chapter VII of the UN charter mentioned Security Council will follow act of impartiality or neutrality (is often associated with passivity and inaction) and without prejudice of the parties concerned; WHO’s action does not match the set paradigm. How world and nation(s) should act upon injustice and biases of multilateral organisations?
During the emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan, the role of China, WHO and the director general (DG) Tedros Adhanom of WHO should be correctly called for a probe. From the beginning of the reported outbreak, the role of China has been highly questionable regarding – the reporting of onset of pandemic, the gravity of its spread; why it took around 14 days to declare its human to human transmission when by that time it had crossed the boundaries and reached Thailand. It is not just about delaying the primary information about number of patients, death, but also accuracy of information, cleaning the area and destroying the primary evidences from Hunan seafood market. Their actions reasonably question the intent of Chinese administrations and health authorities.
Though the research article published on March 17, 2020 in Nature Medicine journal ‘The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2’ by Kristian G. Andersen suggest that SARS-CoV-2 has not been purposefully manipulated in lab, but due to lack of genome sequences of the virus from very early cases it also does not disprove the former speculated theory of its origin. A published report in ‘The Lancet’ journal on January 24, 2020 by a large group of Chinese researchers reported that one third of the 41 Covid-19 hospitalized patients did not have any link to the seafood market. As per Chinese health authorities and the WHO, first report of pneumonia-like symptoms took place on December 8, 2019, but considering the incubation period (in between infection and occurrences of symptoms) the first infection must have been taken place around November 2019 and thus originate the doubt of primary source of infections.
A 33- year old doctor Li Wenliang who died of coronavirus infection, was earlier heavily criticized by Chinese government for spreading rumours about a new kind of pneumonia but later declared him as martyr. On April 16, 2020, the USA Secretary of state, Mike Pompeo has demanded that China should come clean following the published report that corona virus was originated in ‘Wuhan Institute of Virology’ not as a bio-weapon but just to prove that Chinese scientists superiority to their US counterpart in identifying emerging virus threat and lab worker(s) became ‘Patient Zero’ in some unfortunate lab-accident. On April 17, 2020, Chinese news agency Xinhua added 1300 more deaths reports caused by Covid-19 in the pandemic epicentre, Wuhan.
Together with these anomalies in information of onset and spread of Covid-19, a series of concerns about the Chinese government are justified. It should be considered as a largest communist-style cover up in recent times. It doesn’t stop at this point. The blame game continues. While the Chinese spokesperson Lijian Zhao unsuccessfully tried to twist the global perceptions of China by blaming USA for the pandemic, in response that the US president Donald Trump labels corona virus as ‘Chinese virus’. Canadian epidemiologist, Bruce Aylward who visited China on behalf of WHO, said there was ‘huge back and forth’ with Chinese officials and they did not want to refer to the pathogen as ‘dangerous’.
Another reason to the Covid-19 outbreak after the 2002 SARS epidemic is the uncontrolled wet market of China where live animals are sold for meat consumptions. There are more than 50 wild species which are sold in wet markets in which of course a few are farmed but yet harbour viruses. These traffic and trade zones create an environment where most of the viruses crosses the host’s species barrier and turned into zoonotic diseases. Poor hygiene of such markets accentuates the health risk imposed on humans. Another aspect is the ethical issue of wild and exotic-animal meat consumption which further fuels illegal hunting around the globe. In the global flat world, post-covid19 pandemic food consumption is not going to be a cultural and personal choice any longer! Nevertheless, China banned on holding wildlife in wet market post SARS but was not sufficient!
If China had been a more responsible member of the globalisation phenomenon, it would have acted in a swift and transparent manner in sharing the necessary information, preventing such a catastrophe and disbursing with necessary means to alleviate these crises.
WHO: who’s who?
The global role of WHO has never been such deplored since its inception as an UN body. In current circumstances, it is sarcastically termed as Wuhan Health Organisation because of the alleged support it lends to China and too much trust it apparently shows on the information provided by the Chinese communist regime. On January 14, 2020, WHO tweeted for, ‘No clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus’ although at the same point of time Chinese government bulletin reported, ‘The possibility of limited human-to-human transmission cannot be excluded’. This shows the lacklustre of WHO at both, resource level and organisational level.
China started interfering in many international organisations and its influence on them is quite visible. It is quite evident that the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping kept the WHO DG, Tedros Adhanom quite close (Memes were circulated showing how Xi Jinping is standing tall and WHO’s DG Tedros Adhanom is running for the handshake). The attitude of WHO has been clearly very pliant and at every press brief in early times, Tedros appeared to be defending China’s role in handling Covid-19. Instead of being sceptical, follow protocol, advise preventive and regulatory measures, devise/improvise effective containment strategies, try to mitigate the information gap between the affected and susceptible countries take steps to ensure answers to the questions raised by USA and western media that blamed China for pandemic, he on the contrary, applauded the role of China, ‘China is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak despite the severe social and economic impact that is having on China’, this too very early!
WHO DG: an inept leader?
With a mere PhD in malaria research, the Ethopian, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus became the first African to become the DG of the WHO, who was elected with overwhelming majority despite his non-medical background. His role in administration was not sudden. He had seven years of experiences as health minister of Ethiopia, followed by that of a foreign-affairs minister of Ethiopia thus he carries experiences of both portfolio. During his last days of campaign for DG of WHO, stories resurfaced for cover-up of three cholera epidemics in Ethiopia during his term as a health minister, which he denied as a ‘last-minute smear campaign’. With all his experiences and familiarities with international stint and skills as a head of WHO, Tedros has not only miserably failed in his personal capacity to save the face of the WHO but also missed a chance to be a forefront leader.
Eagle vs Dragon: a fight for supremacy as a pretext for covid19
By April 22, 2020, USA declared as many as 1.06 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 that cost 61504 lives. Amidst lockdown in the USA, the Trump administration has halted its WHO funding for its failure to warn the member countries. As per US president Trump, the WHO made a ‘dangerous and costly’ decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and it’s cost estimated a total of 22 million unemployment claims, a cost that US has never seen after the great recession of 2008. Much of its attribution goes to organisational structure of WHO, making it vulnerable to misinformation. After this debacle, US would want to fill the seat in WHO’s executive board which is vacant since 2018. USA’s contribution to the WHO is around $400 to $500 million dollars around ten times compared to that of China.
Being the largest donor, US faces global resistance when it announces to cut its WHO funding. German foreign minister, Heiko Maas describes that cutting fund is like ‘throwing the pilot out of the plane in mid-flight’. Trump’s immediate plan to cut the funding will jeopardize the global fight against Covid-19 and vaccine development but will also affect other on-going vaccination programmes in African countries. Critics support the US concern but they unanimously believe there will be enough time later to review the action of WHO once pandemic is in control. The reactions from the white house led by Donald Trump that came initially around third week of March were not that fierce, but as the infections and mortality increased and with elections standing next door, they needed to act. Also, to cover up his poor handling of this crisis, they call for some action on WHO and China.
The socio-economic cost of the pandemic
As per the estimate of the ‘International Monetary Fund’, Covid-19 would cost to world economy greater than 9 trillion dollars over 2 years. This means Covid-19 outbreak will lead to global economy shrinkage by 3% alone in 2020. Whereas trade analyst bodies expect around Rs 7-8 trillion of loss incurred during first 21 days of lock down in India. Barclays Research has estimated a loss of $26 billion per week because of closed factories and offices. Revenues of Indian Railways are going to shrink by Rs 6500 crore in 43 days of lockdown. It’s a kind of economy terrorism which was imposed on the whole world by hiding and denying information by undemocratic communist regime and using WHO as a face value.
As per published reports in Metro, UK on April 16, 2020, three citizen journalists – Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua who wanted to show the truth of Wuhan have gone untraceable since last 2 months. A gross human rights violation during outbreak and lock down have been reported including aggressive cyber policing and deleting reports, invasive online surveillances, kicking out foreign reporters, whistle-blowers casted as rumour mongers, suppressing the voices of frontline doctors and alleged cremation of living Covid-19 patients. These violations belong to the Article 5 and 8 of the UN declaration of human rights violation for subject to torture, cruelty and violating the fundamental rights granted by constitution.
The act of China and its role in spreading the pandemic should be investigated based on the revised adoption 2005, by International Health Regulations (IHR) of World Health Assembly. The purpose of IHR was ‘to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in a way that are commensurate with the restricted to the public health risk’. In 2013, the DG of WHO, Margaret Chan stated while introducing the concepts such as ‘human security’ and ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, ‘The aim of IHR is not only to achieve the widest possible population coverage. It is also to ensure that there are no significant gaps at the national level, as these have the potential to threaten the health securities of all countries in the world’. AS UN secretary general Antonio Guterres spoke to the council after Security Council meet on 10th April 2020 ‘The pandemic also poses a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security-potentially leading to an increase in social unrest and violence’. China in toto, failed to adhere upon global standard benchmarks of human dignity and sovereignty.
Citing the impact of Covid-19 and its origin from Wuhan, a $20 trillion action lawsuit was filed in Texas Federal court, US by Freedom Watch and his mentor Larry Klayman along with Buzz Photos against the Chinese government, Chinese army, Wuhan Institute of Virology and its director, and Chinese army Major General Chen Wei. The lawsuit mentioned that Covid-19 virus was designed by China to kill mass populations. Biological weapons are outlawed in 1925 and SARS-CoV-2 should be considered as a terrorist-related biological weapon of mass destruction. As per Klayman’s claim, Chinese president, Xi Jinping in his internal speech to Politburo Standing Committee on Febraury 3, 2020, asserts how he gave an order on January 7, 2020, to prevent and control the coronavirus. Another lawsuit filed in the US district court for the Eastern District of Missouri by Eric Schmitt, a Missouri Attorney General against the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other responsible offices files for similar charges like permitting millions of people to be exposed to virus, destroying evidences, hoarding personal protective equipment and so on.
British think tank, Henry Jackson Society has published a report entitled, ‘Coronavirus compensation? Assessing China’s potential culpability and avenues of legal response’, which explores the possibilities of legal action as per the international criminal laws against China. One of the author of this report in a UK Talk Radio station described, ‘The mechanism to defend overselves and the kindred spirit that the IHR were supposed to install effectively were thrown away and this confirms, China’s culpability. He suggests action could be possible through the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and bilateral investment treaties. Former British diplomat to China, also a co-author of the above report describe the whole events, ‘This is like war’. ‘There are somethings you can quantify but others, the full costs, deaths and diseases, loss of career, disruption of education, family breakups which has been unleashed on the world’ can’t be quantified. Apart from a demand of US $4 trillion as compensation, he added – ‘our opponents do not believe in the law. They just use it arbitrarily to control their people’.
Similar war reparation has been filed by The International Council of Jurist (ICJ) and All India Bar Association in United Nation Human Rights Councils seeking compensation from China against Covid-19. Under the ‘Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Act, 2001 China should bear legal liability on committing ‘grave offences against the humanity’ as said by ICJ president Adish Aggarwala. A 32-year age Mumbai based lawyer too, has filed a petition in International Criminal Court, Netherland, suing the Chinese president and other office bearers for criminal negligence, suppression of information and ‘treason against humanity’.
Around two decades back in 2002, Chinese plaintiffs filed a case against Imperial Army of Japan, in Tokyo district court for spreading plagues, anthrax, cholera, typhoid and other communicable diseases in Quzhou, Ningbo and Changde city of China in between 1940-42. Although, the presiding judge found the imperial army had contravened the Geneva and Hague conventions but they rejected claims for compensation on the ground that all reparation issues had been settled by international peace treaties.
Who will tame the dragon?
While answering to an open letter written by the Chinese embassy in Berlin to Editor-in-chief of Bild (a largest circulated daily of Germany), Julian Reichelt mentioned that Xi Jinping wouldn’t be the president without ‘surveillance’ and they have left the world in dark about coronavirus. He questions why his laboratories are not as secure as his prisons for political prisoners. His reactions are in consonant with those of many other world leaders that have started murmuring about Chinese governance. There is a Chinese proverb ‘Zhĭ lĭ bāobuzhù huŏ’ that literally translates ‘You can’t conceal fire by wrapping it in paper’. We hope, sooner or later truth will be revealed and justice will be served to the humanity!
Note: Rajeev Raman, PhD is a scientist at Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Magdeburg, Germany.