China must learn from Covid, not pay for it

Finally. After two million dead, 188 countries infected, $28 trillion in lost output and incalculable suffering, a team from the WHO is on the ground in Wuhan to investigate the origins of coronavirus. Police detectives refer to a “golden hour” in an investigation, when evidence is fresh. Here we are in the not-so-golden 9,487th hour and — weak “hurrah” — they’re in.

All but the most optimistic know how this will go. It’s a year since Wuhan’s wet market was closed, floors scrubbed and samples burned. Since the start of the outbreak the WHO has seemed under the Chinese thumb, reciting the Communist Party line and hailing Xi Jinping’s “rare leadership”. There are doubts about the team itself. The British zoologist Peter Daszak has worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) for years and describes as “baloney” the theory that the virus could have leaked from there. Though the notion of a pathogen engineered and disseminated with malicious intent does seem far-fetched, there is always the possibility of human error. You do not need to be some QAnon-addled conspiracy theorist to find it a coincidence that a virus likely to have its origins in bats was first spread near a lab that researches bat-origin viruses — indeed, this weekend the outgoing US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said there was new US intelligence to suggest that workers in the WIV fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019, and that since at least 2016 the lab had been studying a bat coronavirus that is 96.2 per cent similar genetically to the virus that has caused the pandemic.

However legitimate the questions, it is clear from the endless delays that the CCP is as receptive to this investigation as we might expect. The party has much to lose from transparency, most notably face. Gorbachev once wrote that the Chernobyl disaster “was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later”. Though the analogy between Chernobyl and Covid is not a neat one (the Soviet Union was already limping towards its grave in 1986), there are similarities: the states’ secrecy and control-freakery revealing their fundamental weakness.

And so, when the WHO finally reports back, we are likely to get the dampest of squibs: no great denouement, no bat zero, patient zero or indeed pangolin zero. What then? This non-resolution will be used by China to say “nothing much to see here”, and many will gratefully move on. Some companies are described as “too big to fail”; China can seem too big to cross. When Australia called for an inquiry into Covid-19’s origins last year, it was paid back in the form of 80 per cent tariffs on barley and the back-at-ya accusation that coronavirus had arrived in Wuhan on frozen steaks from Down Under. As China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, menaced last summer, “If you want to make China a hostile country, you will have to bear the consequences.” Thus a combination of commercial realpolitik and fear may lead the rest of the world to leave this in the unsolved mysteries pile and return to the pre-Covid status quo.

But if the sands of time build further over how the outbreak began, and how it became a global catastrophe, it will not only be a betrayal of those who have suffered already but of those who may suffer from a future pandemic. While we may never know how this virus leapt to humans, there is much we do know. We know that wildlife markets are a breeding ground for new viruses. We know that the authorities silenced whistleblowers who were trying to alert the world to the wildfire nature of Covid-19. We know that millions were allowed to fly out of Wuhan when the city was grappling with coronavirus. The smoking gun may be absent but these serious concerns are not, and they must be addressed as forcefully as if we had hard evidence on the origins of the virus.

This might sound like a build-up to call for something general, “a reckoning”, and something specific, “reparations”, but while there may be a kind of catharsis in such calls they are unrealistic. The spirit should not be “China must pay” but “China must act”. The goal should not be to establish guilt, but to apply global pressure on two issues.

The first is the establishment of early warning systems for future pandemics; systems that put the power to raise the alarm in the hands of scientific bodies, that agree how information on new viruses should be shared, and that have clear protocols for when borders should be shut and international travel closed down. It has been estimated that if China’s interventions had come three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 95 per cent. About five million people left Wuhan between the discovery of the virus and the city’s lockdown. Given that speed and transparency are clearly of the essence, huge pressure must be brought to bear to establish how, exactly, China will respond next time one of several presently circulating bat coronaviruses turns nasty.

The second issue is the trade in wildlife. In 2007 a US paper on preventing another Sars warned that “the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China is a time-bomb”. Thirteen years later your shopping list for Wuhan’s market might have included live wolf pups, bamboo rats, civets and salamanders. As Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US Institute of Infectious Diseases, has said: “It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down.” Persuading China to act on this may seem impossible, but some sense has already prevailed with the temporary ban on wildlife trade brought in last year. The rest of the world must now scrutinise, pressure and reason with China in a sustained way to permanently close these Petri dishes for new pandemics.

The idea of reasoning with the CCP might seem fanciful but China’s largesse in the early days of this pandemic — showering ventilators on old enemies — suggested a desire for international approval. In the aftermath of Covid-19 it should be treated not as a pariah but as a critical player in preventing future pandemics, and accorded all the relevant pageantry and status at international summits. If the CCP is to be persuaded to act, it must be able to act without losing face. And, yes, if flattery does not bring China to the table, the shadow of sanctions might. Much will hinge on Joe Biden. In one presidential debate he pledged to tell China: “These are the rules. You play by them or you’re going to pay the price for not playing by them.” Those international rules must go beyond trade and territorial disputes to encompass pandemic preparedness and the treatment of wild animals.

Such an approach is not about apportioning blame but averting future calamity. We think of Sars as the warning before the Big One, Covid-19. What if Covid-19 is the warning for the Bigger One? It would be the gravest error if all nations did not unite to try to prevent such a catastrophe now.

Clare Foges has been a columnist for The Times since 2015. Previously she was chief speechwriter in 10 Downing Street for David Cameron, and for Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London. She has written three popular books for young children, the first of which, Kitchen Disco, was chosen by the Booktrust reading charity as its Book of the Year.

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