China’s Leaders Must Shoulder the Blame for COVID-19

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When the dust finally settles on the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s leaders must not forget where the blame for this disaster lies. In addition to the countless measures they will need to take in order to speed the recovery, they must ensure that the authors of this tragedy – China’s leadership – not only admit responsibility but take decisive remedial action. 

There now can be no doubt that a series of bad decisions on the part of Beijing were directly responsible for the devastating pandemic that is currently sweeping the globe, with incalculable human and economic costs. Nor can there be any doubt that all of this could have been avoided if different decisions had been taken, based on scientific evidence and global consensus rather than political expediency.

According to officials at the World Health Organization (WHO), the origins of this outbreak have been conclusively traced to a wild animal meat market in the city of Wuhan in central China. If this sounds familiar it is hardly surprising. Wild animal consumption was identified as the cause of the 2002-3 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong. Altogether it infected some 8,000 people worldwide and killed at least 900. Coincidentally Canada was one of the hardest-hit countries outside of Asia, with 438 suspected cases and 44 deaths concentrated in the Toronto area.

In response to the SARS crisis, the Chinese leadership temporarily banned the trade in wildlife for human consumption, but that ban was short-lived. Citing cultural norms and a desire to allow citizens some measure of independence, as well as recognizing the increasingly important economic contribution made, party officials loosened their restrictions and eventually allowed the situation to return to pre-SARS levels. Their failure to impose a permanent ban was particularly egregious since China had been a signatory to CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) since 1981. Yet many of the animals slaughtered for sale in the domestic wildlife markets, such as the pangolin, rhino and tiger, have been on the list of endangered species for decades and international trade in these animals has long been illegal.  Moreover, apart from exotic menu items, many of the animals available at such markets were slaughtered for use in traditional medicines whose efficacy is unproven and whose alleged uses could easily be replaced by existing pharmaceuticals.

Even more astonishing was the claim made by various officials, after growing international criticism of the country’s illegal wildlife trade, that they had established “domesticated” operations such as bear “farms” and tiger “parks” which exempted them from the wildlife convention. These efforts were notorious and well-known to international actors, as a report by the prestigious Wilson Centre documented,[1] but the perceived economic and cultural importance to China of these endeavours led to only superficial commitments. Beijing, which actually hosted a 2011 CITES meeting, promised for example to formally end the illegal ivory trade, all the while continuing to tolerate the existence of a well-organized underground black market in elephant and rhino tusks and cultivating “domestic” alternatives. 

The Wilson Centre report criticizing these activities was released barely a month before the world learned in late January of the COVID-19 outbreak in central China. But, as we now know, the virus had actually been causing havoc in the city of Wuhan, a metropolis with a population of 11 million, since early December. Not only had the Chinese leadership initially attempted to conceal this development, but they had arrested and censored Li Wenliang, the opthamologist who alerted officials to the existence of the new virus. (Li was exposed to the virus and died at the end of January, shortly after he was issued an apology by those same officials.)  Even then, the initial efforts by the central government to contain the disease were insufficient, as they attempted to play down the extent and severity of the outbreak with the public and the international community. (These limitations have continued, as various journalists, medical personnel and human rights activists have disappeared from public view over the course of the past few months after criticizing the response of the leadership.[2] Even a wealthy and well-known property tycoon, Ren Zhikiang, has recently been described by friends as disappearing overnight after he wrote an essay criticizing the elite’s efforts as inadequate and condemning the silencing of whistleblowers such as Dr. Li.)[3]

Once the full implications of the COVID-19 outbreak became apparent, however, China was able to institute a massive lockdown of much of the country in a remarkably short period of time, largely due to the authoritarian nature of the regime. Unlike liberal democracies, the authorities there were able to impose draconian limitations on citizens and coerce or use force to achieve their objectives — for example, the construction of dedicated hospitals in less than a week. Consequently the peak of the virus appears to have occurred in mid-February and the country is slowly beginning to recover. Nevertheless the devastation is significant, with over 80,000 infected and 3,250 deaths, as well as a huge cost to the Chinese economy, which is predicted to shrink by at least 2%.

China’s citizens have certainly paid a high price because of the bad decisions of their elites, but at this point it is becoming obvious that other countries may actually suffer more. Outside of China the disease is rampaging across the globe despite the best efforts of many democratic regimes. Italy, the hardest-hit to date, has now reported 31,506 cases and 2,500 deaths.  Canada has so far managed to restrain a community-wide outbreak, with 598 cases and 8 deaths, but this situation may not last even with the prompt, competent and comprehensive response of the various levels of government. Financial costs to individuals, businesses and the economy are also skyrocketing. The federal government has recently announced an emergency $30 billion relief package, which some observers predict may not be sufficient. Meanwhile experts at the World Bank have predicted the cost to the global economy will be anywhere from $1 to $2 trillion US.

In what could only be seen as a tacit admission of error if not blame, the Chinese party leadership quietly issued a directive to put a permanent ban on such markets in mid-March. Through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, they also approved a proposal “prohibiting the illegal wildlife trade, abolishing the bad habit of overconsumption of wildlife, and effectively protecting the lives and health of the people… from the hidden dangers” of wildlife consumption. Since the Congress itself is simply a rubberstamp of the executive committee, and its meeting has been postponed indefinitely in any event, officials said the full ban would go into effect immediately. 

Whether that will be sufficient to curb behaviour in a society where pangolins, for one, are now effectively extinct due to human consumption, resulting in the relentless hunting and killing of the animal elsewhere for the tons of pangolin meat that are secretly imported from other southeast Asian countries, is another matter. Most conservationists believe only an extensive public education campaign highlighting the dangers of zoonotic disease transmission (from animals to people) will prove effective in eliminating many practices, including the attempts to domesticate large wild mammals such as tigers and bears. For this to happen, the Chinese leadership will need to provide accurate information in order to regain the trust of a population that has been sorely tested. The rest of the world should exert as much pressure as possible to ensure that this action takes place. If not, we may not have seen the last of such pandemics, and the Chinese leadership may be in for a serious challenge to the existing state apparatus.  

[1] E. Kirschke-Schwartz. “Wild Laws: China and its Role in Illicit Wildlife Trade” Dec.9, 2019