Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
ON 20 May, a motion to establish an independent
review into the global response and origins of the
Coronavirus has been unanimously adopted at the World Health Assembly. None of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 194 members, including China and the United States, objected to the resolution. Positively, the Xi Jinping-led Communist Chinese government has principally agreed to an independent inquiry into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus during the ongoing World Health Assembly (WHA). More than 110 nations have expressed support for an independent investigation into the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic that is likely to shine an unflattering light on China. The resolution was drafted by member states of the European Union following Australia’s initial proposal for an investigation aimed at China, where COVID-19 began spreading. The draft resolution listed more than 110 nations that had signalled their support.
The UN’s Health Assembly virtually required the vote of two-thirds of the 194-member Assembly to pass the said motion. Besides a scientific investigation into the origins of the virus, the resolution also calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” evaluation into the international response to the Corona pandemic. According to media reports, the resolution was close to gaining support from two-thirds of the WHA’s 194 members. Some observers see a unanimous approval of the resolution as a diplomatic setback for Beijing, since limiting the demands for an external inquiry has been a major political priority for Beijing. “As much as the WHO has struggled and has been the subject of criticism in this crisis, any replacement would look remarkably similar to what we have today,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in China who is now a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “It is hard to imagine an effective global health institution that excluded China, and it’s hard to imagine the United States making Taiwan’s participation a red line.”
Traditionally, the Chinese contention on the issue reflected that “The origin of the virus is a matter of science and should be studied by scientists and professionals. Such research and conclusive answers can only be drawn after getting mutually reinforcing evidence on epidemiological study and virology studies. It is a very complicated issue often it takes a lot of time and there is a degree of uncertainty,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging widely in severity. The first known severe illness caused by a Coronavirus emerged with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China. A second outbreak of severe illness began in 2012 in Saudi Arabia with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). On December 31 of last year, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization of an outbreak of a novel strain of Coronavirus causing severe illness, which was subsequently named SARS-CoV-2. As of February 20, 2020, nearly 167,500 COVID-19 cases have been documented, although many more mild cases have likely gone undiagnosed. The virus has killed over 6,600 people.
Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases has been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population. The two-day assembly – which remains the event of an annual meeting involving 194 member states of the WHO that reviews the work of the UN’s health agency – comes amid recriminations between the US and China over the virus. US President Donald Trump, who faces re-election this year and has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic, has blamed China for trying to cover up the outbreak and has accused the WHO of failing to hold Beijing to account.” I chose not to make a statement today,” Mr Trump said on last Monday about the event, while describing the body as “China-centric” and “a puppet of China”.
Conversely to what President Trump thinks, Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, says Western liberal democracies should resist unrestrained China-bashing and instead try to persuade the country’s communist leaders to work with them in overcoming the current crisis. Chatham House’s Jim O’Neill also highlights the dangers of finger-pointing, arguing that other countries should stop fixating on China’s initial failures and seek to learn from its successful subsequent containment efforts. Indeed, the pandemic, says Keyu Jin of the London School of Economics, gives China an opportunity to win the trust of the United States and other leading powers by helping to lead the global response. But Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College argues that efforts to burnish the country’s international image are most likely to fail, and urges the Chinese authorities to share their vast amounts of data and knowledge about the virus. But with whom should they share it, asks Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, who accuses the World Health Organization of complicity in China’s deception regarding the pandemic, and says the WHO can rebuild its credibility only with new leadership.
More broadly, Chellaney argues, the COVID-19 crisis is a defining moment for the world and should catalyze sweeping reforms of international institutions. But here one cannot help not surprising that there exists a Washington-New Delhi conspiracy- affinity against China. In April, Washington suspended funding to the organization, something Trump says could become permanent. Recently, the White House threatened to pull out if the WHO didn’t “commit to make substantive improvement within the next 30 days. “The EU bristled at the criticism. “It is not a time for finger-pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation,” Virginie Battu-Henriksson, a Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Bloc told reporters. The fact is that both the US and the Indian mindsets are fully engrained in prejudice and doubt about China. This poisonous discourse is a major stumbling block in the way of a transparent and neutral probe into the matter.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.
Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi