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COVID19 and conspiracy theories: A Chinese virus or a bio-weapon?

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Amjed Jaaved

United States’ president Donald Trump thinks that COVID19 is a `Chinese virus’. Conspiracy theories are making rounds that the virus was compounded in a Wuhan laboratory. Several American politicians, such as Senator Tom Cotton, suggested that the coronavirus is a bioweapon leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Trump is convinced that US economy is suffering for China’s lies about events in Wuhan, with connivance by the World Health Organization. He stalled WHO’s funding to teach it a lesson. With an eye on November re-election, Trump assured voters that his rival, Democratic nominee, Joe Biden is weak on China. And, his son Hunter was involved in cloudy dealings with Beijing.

Americans are receptive to Trump’s tirades. When he suggested taking disinfectants as cure for COVID19, many Americans did so. A Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of U.S. voters had an unfavorable view of China compared to 47 per cent two years back. Wuhan’s lockdown was viewed as “draconian” and “undemocratic” step taken by the “despotic Orient”.  The truth remains that a nation’s ability to contain the coronavirus depends on numerous factors: Climate, demographics, location, wealth, leadership, medical stockpiles, healthcare system, and so on.

WHO’s view: The WHO terms the conspiracy theories as “infodemic” that “spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”. On Feb 19, 27 public health scientists from the United States, Europe, and Asia wrote in The Lancet medical journal: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

They affirmed: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.” On Feb 20, the Wuhan Institute of Virology declared that such rumours had severely disrupted its anti-coronavirus emergency efforts. This was the very lab that sequenced the coronavirus on Jan 2 before submitting the virus’ genome to the WHO on Jan 11.

On February 28, the WHO-China Joint Mission on Covid-19 cautioned that much of the world is not ready to “implement the measures that have been employed to contain Covid-19 in China”, which are “the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimise transmission chains in humans. In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.”

China’s view: China-bashing syndrome is a means to divert attention and scrapegoat someone else for their own failures. The coronavirus pandemic has led to some of the greatest outrages in the entire Trump administration. `Hospitals short on personal protective equipment and ventilators because the federal government has stolen stockpiles. People are going hungry while the government gives billions to corporations. `Elections are being threatened by the virus, and politicians are blocking vote-by-mail’ (Common Dreams Home Page).

China extended assistance to over 120 countries and international organizations over the raging pandemic, many of which helped China in the thick of its epidemic fight. Aid packages were sent without political preconditions.

Chinese masks were labeled substandard. Actually, these masks were intended for non-medical use. Local purchasers in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium have clarified that `low quality’ masks were commercially purchased for non-medical use. And, they were not included on official Chinese aid.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a microbiologist, said her country was “very pleased” about China’s help. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also expressed his gratitude to the Chinese people for their assistance.

Fall-out of Trump’s pugnacity:  Continued China criticism could increase volatility in bond, stock and currency markets across Asia. Trump may increase import taxes just when China is experiencing Coronavirus-driven 6.8% contraction in gross domestic product. Trump’s volatile actions may reduce GDP not only in China but also in, South Korea and Singapore and down through the economic food chain to Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar. If Trump imposed 25% penalties on imports of cars and auto parts, it would badly affect Thailand. The fallout for supply chains would hit growth from the Philippines to India.

After Huawei, Trump could ban more mainland Chinese companies including those in artificial intelligence, energy, micro processing, robotics and self-driving vehicle spaces.

China’s armoury: China could devalue its currency. It could disavow the phase one trade deal which guaranteed billions in purchases from farmers in states Trump must win come November election. Beijing could threaten to dump its $1.1 trillion of U.S. government bonds, greatly increasing Washington’s debt-servicing costs. It could prohibit sales of U.S. cars and trucks. It could impose an Airbus-only policy in Asia’s biggest economy, banning the U.S.’s Boeing from its aerospace market. Besides, it could halt exports of the rare-earth materials Silicon Valley needs to make batteries, memory chips and smartphones. China could tell Apple, CNN, Goldman Sachs, Nike, Starbucks, Tesla and others to leave China within ten days.

Smear campaign: The US Senate Republican campaign arm distributed a memo to Grand Old Party (Republicans) candidates, advising them to address the coronavirus crisis by aggressively attacking China. The 57-page memo, dated April 17, was authored by the political consulting firm of Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican strategist who has advised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

The memo provides detailed instructions, including short and expanded versions, for candidates to memorize and use in public. It contains three main assaults: That China caused the virus “by covering it up”, that Democrats are “soft on China” and that Republicans will “push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic”, Politico summarized.

Compensation claims: Some organizations and have filed “compensation claims” against China for not doing enough to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, and allowing it to become a pandemic.

Their claims are of three types.

First, the lawsuits have been filed against the Chinese government in foreign courts. For example, a Florida-based law firm, on behalf of Florida residents, has filed a case in a southern Florida court against the Chinese government, accusing it of failing to curb the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and letting it become a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge economic damage. Another US state, Missouri, sued the Chinese government over its handling of the virus, seeking damages for what it described as deliberate deception and insufficient action to check the outbreak.

In an interview with Fox Television, a Republican congressmen from Indiana said China should pay the cost for the damage the pandemic has caused to the United States, and listed ways in which China can be made to pay the damages, including forcing it to write off most of the US’ debts. Also, an Australian parliament member proposed taking back land owned by Chinese companies in Australia as compensation for China “transmitting” the virus.

And third, a few organizations and individuals have appealed to international agencies to hold China “accountable” for the pandemic and force it to pay “compensation”. For example, some NGOs in India have filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council, demanding that China be made to pay “compensation” to the international community for the losses the pandemic has caused.

Besides, an American lawyer has filed a “case” in the International Criminal Court accusing China of “intentionally developing” the novel coronavirus as a “deadly biological weapon”, claiming the failure of the Chinese government and military “to prevent the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s personnel from becoming infected with the bioweapon and then carrying the virus out into the surrounding community and proliferation into the United States”. Since this is tantamount to a “crime against humanity”, the lawyer claims, the ICC should probe the issue.

China’s view of claims: China regards them as `ludicrous’. It contends China as a `nation has complete sovereign immunity’. According to the “no jurisdiction” principle between sovereign states derived from the principle of “sovereign equality”, the court of one state does not exercise jurisdiction over another state, which is called “sovereign immunity”.

China claims to adhere to absolute sovereign immunity which rejects any jurisdiction from foreign courts. Even according to the US’ relative sovereign immunity, which allows for a commercial activity exception to sovereign immunity, China’s outbreak prevention and control work is governmental behavior rather than a commercial activity, and therefore also enjoys sovereign immunity.

The ICC is an international organization established under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to investigate and try four categories of international crimes-genocide, crime against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.

According to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s investigation procedure can be initiated in three ways: by the prosecutors themselves, by the United Nations Security Council, and by a signatory state other methods, including the submission of materials by individuals or organizations, do not directly trigger an investigation. There can be an exception, though, but only if an ICC prosecutor believes the materials submitted are solid enough to initiate an investigation. The absurdity of the US lawyer’s claim suggests this possibility is very slim.

China contends `UN Human Rights Council is not an “international court” but an intergovernmental body affiliated to the UN and made up of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly, assigned to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe, and make recommendations to address human rights violations. The UNHRC mainly deals with inter-state interactions, and although, according to a 2007 resolution, individuals, groups and NGOs can appeal in case of consistent and serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the plea must meet certain strict conditions to initiate an investigation, which the Indian NGOs’ complaint doesn’t.

As for writing off US debts and seizing the land legally owned by Chinese companies in Australia, they would be illegal acts, not least because the claim illogically and forcibly attempts to link the novel coronavirus with a completely unrelated issue in an attempt to violate the contractual and property rights of the Chinese government and companies.

Also, there are three conditions for a state to be held legally liable for an act: the act should be attributable to the state, the state should be at fault, and the state should have violated its international obligations.

There is no proof virus originated in Wuhan. Origin of the novel coronavirus is yet to be scientifically verified, and the fact that the epidemic was first reported in Wuhan, Hubei province, alone does not necessarily mean it originated in China.

Besides, in international law, the actions attributable to a state only include the actions of state organs and those of institutions or individuals authorized to exercise government power. The actions of other persons or entities cannot be attributed to the state. The unintentional transmission of a disease by an infected person to others is not an act committed on behalf of his or her country, so his/her behavior cannot be attributed to a government.

Since SARS-CoV-2 is a new coronavirus, how can people know everything about it when it’s still mutating? And by taking rapid and strict measures, China has largely contained the pandemic at home. By contrast, the US and some European governments did not take effective measures for almost two months to prevent the spread of the virus in their respective countries. And they can’t blame China for their own failure. Therefore, their lawsuits are good neither in law nor facts.

Inference: The world should join hands to develop vaccines, plasmas, and drugs to beat the virus. It is time to cooperate not dissipate energies on blame game.