April 11, 2021
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Only Independent Probe Can Settle US-China 'Conspiracy Theories' Around COVID-19 Origins

Scholars, diplomats and politicians from US and China are trying to gain a positional advantage over each other by publishing a plethora of pieces in reputed papers and magazines. Only an independent international investigation at some point into the origin of the virus is the best way forward.

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Only Independent Probe Can Settle US-China 'Conspiracy Theories' Around COVID-19 Origins
A file photo featuring US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (AP photo)
Only Independent Probe Can Settle US-China 'Conspiracy Theories' Around COVID-19 Origins

In the context of geo-political implications of COVID-19 pandemic, positional understanding from different angles, like positional play in the international chess championships, is extremely important. Positional play in chess can be understood as encroaching upon enemy's territory with a pawn to gain an advantage and minimise opponent’s space and opportunities until one can utilise ‘tactics’ for a decisive result.

In the context of COVID-19, the same is happening between the two economic powers in the world — China and the US. Both countries are contending to have a supremacy over each other and coming out with slew of "conspiracy theories". Scholars are reproving each other with ‘Sinophobicnarrative’ and ‘White supremacy’ paradigm. Hence, it is important that the 7.594 billion people in the world know the truth and do not get swamped by the pomposity and rhetoric arising from any sort of selfish narratives.

Scholars, diplomats and politicians from both countries are trying to gain a positional advantage over each other by publishing a plethora of pieces in reputed papers and magazines. However, some of them are not looking at the development of incidents from a wider angle and observing the whole incident through the narrow prism of ‘nationalistic benefit’ of their own countries.

We need to look at the things and events in a comprehensive manner, with an objective approach while abjuring any sort of subjective perspective. We need to learn from my Guru, nonagenarian Padma Bhushan Professor Tan Chung, who uses a positional approach from various angles to juxtapose and integrate the diachronic and synchronic contexts of any international historical or contemporary event.

World famous Scottish-American professor Niall Ferguson, who once ironically called himself as ‘a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang’, recently wrote an extremely significant and persuasive article in The Times of London, ‘Let’s Zoom Xi Jinping. He has questions to answer about coronavirus’. It is extremely important to investigate the questions he raises and examine his arguments in a subjective manner. When one of the most influential scholars in the world asks the questions, we need to pay attention.

Prof. Ferguson is correct in asserting the first case of COVID-19 was in Wuhan and even the Chinese authorities and the public face of Chinese war against Coronavirus, pulmonologist Dr. Zhong Nanshan, does not negate the fact. Nobody knows how this virus originated, and until someone has a tangible and demonstrable proof, we can only speculate.

Even if the virus originated in Hubei province, just for sheer antagonism, it is not correct to defend the American President Donald Trump or the influential HBO comedian and commentator, Bill Maher, in calling this virus a ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines of 2015 are clear and evidently forbid nomenclating a disease after a geographical place. Nobody called novel influenza A (H1N1)pdm09 of 2009, as ‘American virus’ although the first case was identified as a 10-year-old girl in California. H1N1 was extremely lethal too and US CDC estimates, around 12,000 people died in the US alone, and almost half a million across the world. Hopefully, the loss of life by COVID-19 might not be as high as H1N1.

One can see the website of WHO where it is clearly mentioned, “In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impact by stigmatising certain communities or economic sectors. This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but naming diseases after a country or region does matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

One needs to follow the UN and WHO guidelines, isn’t it? In 1968, people called the influenza A (H3N2) as ‘Hong Kong flu’ but at that time, the WHO had no clear guidelines on naming the diseases. Therefore, Trump is certainly not entitled to call COVID-19 as ‘Chinese virus’ and such an influential scholar like Prof. Ferguson should not support this.

China has helped dozens of countries, including Italy and India, in the fight against the infection and no country should be ‘Wàng'Ä“nfùyì’ or ‘Ungrateful’ for this.
China donated 170,000 PPE to India. Italy, which was initially crumbling in its fight against Coronavirus, received all kinds of support and help from the experienced doctors and health workers who flew from Wuhan to Milan in time. China sent planeloads of ventilators, masks and medics to several countries and these are not any figment of imagination.

Some of the kits sent by China might be of lower quality but when one engages in such a serious and humongous task, some mistakes are bound to happen at some level. I simply do not understand how can China snatch victory from the jaw of defeat by liberally helping some countries, as Professor Ferguson argues?He is, however,completely right in criticising a Chinese mandarin in putting the blame on America for bringing the virus to Wuhan without supplementing any substantial proof.

Florence mayor Dario Nardella’s urging citizens to “hug a Chinese” as part of a campaign to fight racism amid the coronavirus outbreak should be seen as an ‘overzealous attempt’ to combat the virus of ‘racism’ but there were much more dumber things which have happened across the globe, including organising a marathon in my own city of Bath in Mid-March and not closing the schools in America and the UK till thousands got infected. Trump’s suggestion of injecting COVID-19 patients with disinfectant is the one of the most incautious statements one has read in the recent times.

Yes, there was a delay by the local party officials of Hubei province and Wuhan city in bringing the matter to world's notice in early January, when ophthalmologist, Dr. Li Wenliang and his colleagues brought the matter into the public realm. But almost all officials, including the Mayor and the Party secretary, have been punished and substituted. I am unable to find the source of information of Prof. Ferguson’s assertion of 104 cases, including 15 deaths in December 2019, despite researching for several hours on both the Chinese and English resources. Even BBC report says that by December 31, 2019, there were only 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan and on January 1, the wet market in question was directed to close. The first confirmed death was reported on January 9, 2020. However, I shall thoroughly agree with Prof. Ferguson that Wuhan officials should not have waited until January 20 to make an announcement about ‘human-to-human’ transmission of the virus.

Prof. Ferguson has confirmed and admitted his mistake about his claim of restriction of "domestic flights from Hubei" while allowing international flights out of Wuhan after another American political scientist, Professor Daniel Bell, who teaches at a Chinese University, publicly challenged this part of argument. The fact is that besides chartered and cargo flights, planes stopped flying in and out of Wuhan Tianhe International airport. One of my students, who had gone to Wuhan to meet his parents during the spring festival, has been unable to return to London even until now.

Secondly, why didn't the western countries stop any flights coming from China when everybody knew about the spread of virus from Wuhan on January 23? Why did almost all western countries silently watch the virus spread for weeks as if it was not going to affect them, and squandered the precious time? Compared to other nations, despite extremely low infection rate and very low fatality, one must appreciate Indian government’s sturdy decision of locking down the whole country on March 24. Even before that, thermal checking was in full swing at Asian airports. But airports in western countries, including the JFK in New York and Heathrow or Gatwick in London, were unprepared and there was no practice of thermal imaging.

On the question of ‘vanishing’ of some of the scholars and journalists, I agree with Professor Ferguson. China proclaims to be a democratic nation and if it wants the world to have more trust, it must allow citizen journalists to show the true picture to the world. Needless to also say that Chinese statistics of deaths in Hubei and the whole country is not precisely correct. Many countries including Iran and Italy are concealing the death toll which is not ‘democratic’ either. It is also not easy for any country to immediately calculate the exact death toll.

It is for the Chinese people to decide whether they would like to have a one party or multi-partysystem, but only the latter would not make a country less corrupt. Several multi-party democracies including India, Pakistan and African countries have been found more corrupt than China on the Transparency International Index.

An independent international investigationat some point into the origin of the virus would certainly be the best way forward. In the spirit of Confucius, who politely expounded, ‘Shùérbùzuò, xìnérhÇÂŽogÇ”, qièbǐyúwÇÂ’lÇÂŽopéng’ which means ‘carrying out on the works of previous stalwarts and not adding any real research’, I hope my narrative helps eradicate some of the mendacious grey clouds from the reality of glaring sun as I have used both -- Chinese and English -- resources to reach this conclusion.

(The author is a Sinologist and first elected Indian Councillor of Bath, UK. Vies expressed are personal.)

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