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Is China Really Responsible for the Corona Pandemic?

Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik

If it were up to President Trump, this question would be answered quickly: China is responsible for this disaster. Incidentally, the Chinese leadership is already having a hard time with it. The disease undeniably became visible for the first time in the Chinese megacity of Wuhan. It remains unclear where the virus came from. The government of the People’s Republic of China has agreed in principle to an investigation of the situation. However, only under the condition that not only Wuhan but the whole world is investigated, and only when everything is over. So, do they have something to hide?

There remains the widespread perception that the PRC government did not inform the public in China and around the world immediately after the appearance of the disease of its potential to develop into a pandemic, although prominent experts in the PRC considered this risk to be high. A faster flow of information to the world public could have saved many lives — in China and around the world.

But: The world outside China did not want to consider the possibility of a pandemic, even when it became clear in Wuhan with what force the epidemic was spreading. Today we know that the Chinese Center for Disease Control informed its American partner organization about the new pneumonia at an early stage and sought cooperation. Although the American medical secret service warned Washington that the disease was spreading, no action was taken. Apparently, the Trump government assumed that the problem was a Chinese one.

In Europe, too, it took quite a long time to realize the scale of the problem. Although many airlines stopped their flights to and from China soon after the closure of Wuhan, flights that continued to arrive from China, e.g. at Vienna’s Airport in Schwechat, were treated in the same way as always. Since the SARS epidemic in 2003, systems for automatically recording the body temperature of passengers have been installed at airports in East Asia. These systems do not exist in Europe. Manual temperature measurements were not considered. Again, it was probably assumed that the new disease was a Chinese one.

Would governments around the world have acted differently if the WHO had pointed out the danger earlier? The reason given for the withdrawal of the USA from the WHO is that this organization is partly responsible for the disaster. It is worth noting that the WHO has been pointing out the dangers of a pandemic for years and has added “disease X” to the list of possible triggers of a pandemic since 2018. The relevant documents state that there might be a pandemic caused by an unknown virus with a high risk of infection, affecting so many countries that it would cause serious social and economic crises. No response. A swine flu epidemic occurred in the USA in 2009/2010, killing 12,000 people. At that time, the stocks of protective clothing and masks, which are kept in camps in various parts of the country, were exhausted. Since then, they have not been replenished.

No, the governments would not have acted differently. They had enough time to prepare for such a disaster and they had reasons not to do so. We can see from the situation in East Asia that if measures had been taken earlier, the pandemic would have developed on a different scale. Although particularly close to the center of the outbreak, East Asia has come off comparatively well. The island of Taiwan stands out in particular. Measures were taken early — for example, school and university holidays were extended over Chinese New Year — but the population was spared measures to restrict their freedom of movement. The experience of the SARS epidemic in 2003 is very important, and even more so for the positive development in South Korea. Although far less contagious than the Corona virus, the East Asian region was comparatively more severely affected at that time, starting in China. Not only the governments had learned to deal with the epidemic, the societies were also familiar with it. Most people knew what had to be done. Nevertheless, East Asia was not immune to dismantling its camps. Accordingly, protective clothing and masks were also in short supply in East Asia this time around.

Instead of acknowledging that we are dealing with a global phenomenon to which each country is reacting with a different strategy, not least to prove that it is capable of managing such a crisis, the governments of the USA and the PRC are blaming each other for the crisis. The Corona virus has long since become a bone of contention between the USA and the PRC. The more the USA shows weakness — its aircraft carriers in the Pacific are contaminated with Corona, and there is fighting outside the White House, as there has recently only been seen in Hong Kong — the more voices are raised in the PRC that now is the time to force the allegedly secessionist province of Taiwan to surrender to Beijing. While we in Europe fight daily with the Corona statistics, the knives are being sharpened verbally between Beijing and Washington.

On closer inspection, one phenomenon bears responsibility for the pandemic crisis: it is the new Cold War between the USA and the People’s Republic of China, which has been in the making for some time and which has reached its temporary peak in the course of the Corona pandemic. The fact that the USA and the PRC are undergoing a process of decoupling, not only in the economy but also at many other levels of their previous cooperation, is the real cause of the crisis. This decoupling means that information that was previously exchanged between the two countries is no longer exchanged, or at least not heard; it means that channels of communication that previously created and maintained trust are no longer used; it means that attempts to contain conflicts are no longer made. And it means that both countries believe they can use a global pandemic crisis to their own advantage. The victims of the Corona crisis are the first victims of the new Cold War!

Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik is a professor of sinology at the Department for East Asian Studies and the Dean of the Faculty of Philological and Cultural Studies at the University of Vienna.