Ahead of WHO meet, chorus for Covid-19 probe that puts China under the lens

The chorus for transparency and investigation into the outbreak of the coronavirus disease is growing louder in the run up to the truncated session of the World Health Assembly 10 days later.

The disease, which originated in China late last year, has killed more than a quarter of a million people across the world in a little over four months. China has been blamed by many countries for not giving the world a heads up about the disease that could have minimised its spread. Questions have also been asked of the World Health Organisation that has been accused of being overly deferential to China.

The loudest criticism of China and WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has come from the United States President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Last month, the US suspended funding to the WHO to drive home the point.

But the United States isn’t the only one upset about China and WHO’s role.

Over the last week and more, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also lent the grouping’s backing to calls for an investigation into the origin of Covid outbreak.

This week, the European Union declared that it would move a resolution at the World Health Assembly for a timely review of the international response to the coronavirus pandemic including the World Health Organisation’s performance.

Diplomats in Washington and Geneva suggest that the resolution, which was being drafted in consultation with a large number of countries, presented a huge test for China in the run up to the global health body’s annual meeting.

Beijing has been under fire over its early handling of the virus, which has pushed the global economy toward recession as it spreads around the world. Cases have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since they were first identified in China in December 2019.

British defence secretary Ben Wallace too questioned the role of China in the Covid-19 outbreak, asserting that China needs to be open and transparent about what it learnt, its shortcomings also successes.

Ben Wallace’s remarks are seen in context of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s statement in April that underscored the need to ask “hard questions” about how the coronavirus came about and how it could have been stopped.

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren made it clear last month that her government wanted the origin of the virus probed besides an investigation into the WHO’s role in the pandemic.

It is in this context, diplomats in Washington said, that China appeared to have started approaching governments in countries for support in face of public criticism. This strategy was outed in Germany where Chinese diplomats approached German government officials to request them to make “positive public statements” on China’s handling of the disease. Officials in Berlin had declined the request.

Beijing has had to battle accusations that it had attempted to cover up the outbreak of the disease and told the world about the disease much too late. For instance, questions are being asked why Chinese authorities stopped flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country after the Covid-19 outbreak but allowed international flights. Or why it clamped down on research by Chinese scientists into the origins of the virus.

Authorities had reprimanded doctors including Li Wenliang, who later passed away, for sharing warnings about the coronavirus infection risk in WeChat groups in late December.

Criticism about this approach to censor information reignited on Friday after a line that referred to the coronavirus disease being detected in China and spreading to the world was removed from an article written for a Chinese daily by 27 European ambassadors to commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the EU and China.

But there have been several instances of Chinese diplomats posted around the world launching attacks on the media for what they describe as efforts to politicise the Covid-19 outbreak.

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