Don’t Count on China’s Help With a Coronavirus Inquiry

Beijing’s COVID-19 response has been a success story, and the Communist Party wants to keep it that way.

People attend a job fair in Wuhan, China
People attend a job fair at the Hongshan Gymnasium in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Dec. 2. Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. But while many countries are still grappling with how to handle the second wave, a group of international scientists is starting to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and how the next pandemic might be averted. Don’t expect any help from Beijing on this, though. China’s striking success in handling the pandemic has won it plaudits—but it is unlikely to meet international expectations for a transparent, meticulous, and meaningful inquiry into the viral spread.

Two multilateral missions to examine the world’s pandemic response have been confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The first has already begun. On Oct. 30, a group of WHO scientists met to initiate a study into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The second study will begin “at the earliest appropriate moment” and will look at the global community’s response to the pandemic. China has agreed to support both but only on the condition they are led by the WHO and that the second inquiry will take place when the pandemic is over and will not just focus on China.

Both of these inquiries are inherently political, as they revolve around questions about how national authorities reacted internally and worked with the international community. China has many questions to answer. As the country in which the first confirmed cases appeared, China’s early handling of the virus is under hard scrutiny—and no official can risk signing off on transparency that might endanger the national reputation.

Faced with a previously unknown virus, Chinese authorities had some reason to be cautious, but they may also have deliberately obfuscated events as they unfolded. Doctors in Wuhan have said that they were blocked from raising the alarm about a new infectious disease that appeared in patients in late December. The most publicized example of this was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who was reprimanded by the police for “spreading rumors” and who later died of COVID-19.

In January, although the WHO was in contact with the Chinese authorities about the outbreak in Wuhan, local and municipal health authorities gave contradictory instructions, potentially allowing the virus to spread—first to other parts of China, and then to the rest of the world. The pattern of inaction in mid-January, followed by sudden, massive national action, suggests a paralysis caused by political fears. One of the questions that the WHO mission will have to answer is why China’s National Health Commission only publicly acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus three days after Imperial College London researchers estimated the potential number of cases in China had already exceeded 4,000.

Legitimate questions around responsibility are in direct conflict with the approach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to crisis management. Already, it has shifted blame away from the central government by firing local officials. It is tightly vetting what research Chinese universities can publish on COVID-19. The story that China heroically saved its people—and tried to save the world—from a deadly virus is already being written. A focus on the concealment of information and on China’s coercion of other countries such as Pakistan not to close their borders to travel is not the narrative Beijing wants to sell.

Such obfuscation is a feature of the CCP, not a bug. The party faced a wave of public criticism in 2011 when, after a high-speed rail crash in the southeastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 people, local officials focused on covering up the disaster rather than investigating its causes. Lawyers were instructed by government officials not to take on cases from the families of victims because “the accident is a major sensitive issue concerning social stability.” The state’s preoccupation with social stability means that, in the event of a crisis, any inquiries take place within the opaque channels of the CCP. This tendency has only intensified since Xi Jinping took power in 2012. The party is mistrustful of alternative sources of information, and it only allows the officially sanctioned version of events to be circulated in the public forum.

This is not China’s first experience with a deadly coronavirus, but there is an important difference between COVID-19 and the SARS epidemic. With SARS, China had the highest number of cases and deaths worldwide, and in 2003 the party publicly apologized for errors it made in reporting and communication. COVID-19 is a different story, as by almost any measure China has successfully driven down its infection rate and limited deaths in a short period of time. The United States has suffered 59 times as many deaths, despite having a population that is around a quarter the size of China’s. The introspection among Western countries over their subsequent mishandling of COVID-19 serves to divert attention away from China’s actions in the early phase of the outbreak.

Any inquiry into COVID-19 will also have to scrutinize the WHO’s relationship with China. At times, the organization has appeared reluctant to move away from the CCP’s version of events. On Jan. 14, the WHO sent a now infamous tweet, saying: “Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.” It was one of many statements that the organization made in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that either praised China’s role in the handling of the outbreak or subscribed to the CCP’s desired narrative. Two weeks after that tweet, the WHO declared a public health emergency.

The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has pushed back against accusations that the organization was too cozy with Beijing and has pleaded that the virus should not be politicized. Tedros remains in a difficult position: The WHO has no legal mandate to conduct investigations, so it is dependent on the cooperation of individual nations that may be rescinded at any time. But even the WHO’s mollifying statements in the early days of the pandemic were not enough to open China’s doors fully: A delegation sent in February was not allowed to visit the wet market where the virus is suspected to have originated.

Tedros is not the first WHO official to have faced difficulties with China, but he may be less willing than some of his predecessors to challenge China. As the SARS outbreak began to subside in 2003, the head of the organization at the time, Gro Harlem Brundtland, criticized China’s refusal to allow international investigators full access to the country. If the WHO has resolved to depoliticize COVID-19, it may shy away from revealing internal complaints that China shared limited data on the virus at a time when time to prevent a global outbreak was running out.

There will be another pandemic after this one. Dealing with that effectively will require learning the lessons from 2020, and from 2003, when Brundtland implored China: “Next time something strange and new comes anywhere in the world, let us come in as quickly as possible.”

Amy Hawkins is a journalist for the Economist.

James Thorpe writes about law and politics.

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