Do not be misled by mask diplomacy.
The previous global epidemic, which started in Guangdong province of southern China in 2002, was caused by the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus. Similar to the latest coronavirus, the common belief is that it began at a livestock market, where the virus transferred from a wild animal to a human. Traditional markets selling wildlife are common in South-east Asia and China, and trading in live animals is connected to a cultural belief that recently butchered meat is tastier than factory-produced. These traditional markets are fertile ground for an infection, as many people and animals stay together in a confined space and sanitary requirements are often inadequate.
China’s reaction to the SARS outbreak was to keep silent. It took almost three months from the first case of atypical pneumonia in mid-November 2002 until the Beijing office of the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified.1 Doctor Jiang Yanyong from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Hospital No. 301 turned to the Chinese media, as the official statistics on people who had fallen ill were inconsistent with the hospital’s data. Jiang’s statement leaked to foreign media, which led to the dismissal of the health minister and the mayor of Beijing, the correction of official statistics and the launch of an extensive information campaign to prevent the further spread of the disease. Jiang was prohibited from interacting with the media and placed under police supervision.2
China’s modus operandi during the Covid-19 outbreak has been similar to that during the SARS epidemic. On 30 December 2019, Li Wenliang, a doctor at the Wuhan Central Hospital who has since died from the virus, warned his course-mates in a closed group chat of a new virus outbreak similar to SARS. The local police forced the participants in the chat to remain silent. Nevertheless, information was leaked, and on 31 December the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced that 27 people had been infected with the new virus but that there was no need for concern as the illness did not spread from human to human.3 The WHO’s Beijing office was notified of the new virus.
At least nine tests taken from infected people in Wuhan had confirmed the new SARS-like virus by the end of December, and the information was sent to China’s National Health Commission, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the hospitals that submitted the tests. On 3 January, China’s National Health Commission ordered the tests in question to be destroyed or sent to specific national laboratories for storage. The results were certainly not to be published or shared with third parties.
On 17 January, Wuhan City Government organised a banquet for 40,000 families, ignoring medical workers’ opinion that the new virus was highly infectious. Three days later, epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who was sent to Wuhan by state authorities, confirmed that the virus could spread from human to human. On the night of 23 January, the Chinese central government ordered the lockdown of the city of Wuhan but, due to the world’s largest regular mass migration during Chinese New Year celebrations, millions of people had already left Wuhan to visit their families.
China’s economic growth has resulted in the increase of its political footprint. The country’s influence in the UN has strengthened suddenly, and it currently chairs four of its 15 main subsidiary organs. The Director-General of the WHO is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian who has always praised China. The WHO has been criticised for the complete lack of scrutiny of information coming from China.
On 31 December, healthcare officials from Taiwan notified the WHO and China’s health officials of their suspicions about the new virus’s human-to-human transmission, as rumours of infected medical workers in China had reached them. The WHO did not investigate the suspicions or disseminate Taiwan’s early warning.4 Instead, it repeated China’s official statements and announced on 14 January that, since there were no data on infected medical workers, there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. By then the virus had travelled from China to Thailand.5 The WHO admitted the person-to-person spread of coronavirus only as late as 23 January.
According to the modelling run by researchers in the population mapping group WorldPop at the University of Southampton, China’s drastic non-pharmaceutical intervention methods in restricting the spread of the coronavirus—such as early detection, isolation of cases and travel restrictions—resulted in 114,325 cases in China by the end of February, whereas without those measures the number of infected people would have been 67 times greater. Research also found that, if the country had reacted to the epidemic one, two or three weeks earlier, there would have been respectively 66%, 86% and 95% fewer cases of infection and the spread of the disease would have been confined to a local level.6 It was over three weeks from the end of December—when laboratory results confirmed that this was a new SARS-type virus—until the lockdown of Wuhan on 23 January, which means that timely intervention could have reduced the spread by over 95%.
According to official statistics, the coronavirus that started in Wuhan has been identified in over two million people all over the world and, despite ever-tighter restrictions, attempts to put a stop to the spread have not been successful. China is attempting to act as a responsible partner with its “mask diplomacy”, but the course of events described above proves the opposite.
James Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at the US Naval War College, explains that, as China is party to the International Health Regulations adopted in 2005, it has a duty to inform the WHO of a public health emergency with potential to develop into an international crisis. The information must be transmitted in a timely and transparent manner, but China has delayed notifying the international community and intentionally held back vital information, such as confirmed human-to-human transmission. According to Kraska, under the terms of a 2001 report by the International Law Commission (ILC), China bears legal responsibility for its internationally wrongful act of failing to fulfil its responsibility of notifying the public according to the Regulations.7 In addition, according to Article 31 of the ILC report, the responsible state is under an obligation to make full reparation for the injury, including moral and material damages.8
As a state has the right to refuse to appear at an international court owing to the principle of sovereignty, it is highly likely that claiming damages against China for the coronavirus will be difficult. According to Kraska, international law provides an opportunity for the affected states to pressure China through measures such as suspending the performance of their obligations to China.9
Could this mean that, when the world recovers from the crisis caused by the coronavirus, the US will default on its trillion-dollar debt to China, and Italy will re-nationalise its former flagship company Pirelli, currently owned by Chinese state-owned enterprise ChemChina? Time will tell, although for now, we must not be misled by Chinese mask diplomacy or information operations that try to convince the public that the coronavirus originated at a US military laboratory or came from Italy. As China’s influence grows, one might hope that so does its sense of responsibility, as the rules-based world order calls for equal rights and responsibilities for both large and small states. Upholding this world order should be especially important for small countries such as Estonia.
1 “Update 95 – SARS: Chronology of a serial killer”, WHO, www.who.int/csr/don/2003_07_04/en/ (accessed 3 April 2020).
2 Philip P. Pan, “Chinese Pressure Dissident Physician”, The Washington Post, 5 July 2004, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A28014-2004… (accessed 3 April 2020).
3 “武汉市卫健委关于当前我市肺炎疫情的情况通报” (Wuhan Municipal Health Commission’s report on the current situation of pneumonia in the City of Wuhan), 武汉市卫生健康委员会 (Wuhan Municipal Health Commission), 31 December 2019, wjw.wuhan.gov.cn/front/web/showDetail/201912310898… (accessed 3 April 2020).
4 “Taiwan says WHO failed to act on coronavirus transmission warning”, Financial Times, 20 March 2020, www.ft.com/content/2a70a02a-644a-11ea-a6cd-df28cc3… (accessed 3 April 2020).
5 “Novel Coronavirus – Thailand (ex-China)”, WHO, 14 January 2020, www.who.int/csr/don/14-january-2020-novel-coronavi… (accessed 3 April 2020).
6 “Early and combined interventions crucial in tackling Covid-19 spread in China”, University of Southampton, 11 March 2020, www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2020/03/covid-19-china…. (accessed 3 April 2020).
7 James Kraska, “China Is Legally Responsible For Covid-19 Damage And Claims Could Be In The Trillions”, War on the Rocks, 23 March 2020, warontherocks.com/2020/03/china-is-legally-respons… (accessed 3 April 2020).
8 “International Law Commission Report on the work of its fifty-third session (23 April-1 June and 2 July-10 August 2001)”, UN General Assembly Fifty-fifth Session, Supplement No. 10, A/56/10, August 2001, casebook.icrc.org/case-study/international-law-com… (accessed 3 April 2020).
9 James Kraska, op. cit.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.