The blame game has restarted. US officials have referred to the virus as the Wuhan or Chinese virus. China retorts with claims of xenophobia and conspiracy. It is inevitable in an election year in the US and from such an administration. And when millions more around the world are blighted by it, attention would naturally return to China and the causes of this pandemic. At stake is the reputation as a global player, and China knows it.
The exact biological cause is in many ways unimportant to most. It rose in Wuhan, China, likely from animal to human contact within wet food markets. Despite Russia’s usual disinformation campaign and the attempts by China to mystify the origins by starting a counter-narrative suggesting it was planted in Wuhan by the US military, the basic and generally unarguable evidence points to a virus doing what it has often done: pathogens jumping to the wrong place.
What’s in a name?
President Trump has repeatedly referred to the virus as the Chinese virus and is being criticised by the Chinese government and a few agencies such as the WHO who point to the risk of stigmatising the Chinese. While banging a drum is not helpful, in an election year, when the global economy is likely to head into recession as a result of this pandemic, this drum is going to be banged louder and repeatedly. Add to that, as sport and general life is disrupted, eyes are going to turn east.
A question is is Trump wrong? He might often be so but if the reference here is to the evidence, evidence suggests Chinese food safety practices have led to this. Indeed, there was little counter-argument from the Chinese government until it spread to Europe and the US. If this does lead to a recession which becomes an issue within the US elections, you can guarantee the criticism of China will be magnified. Agencies like the WHO have done little to protect other nations, instead demurring to China and trade
Xi talked last week about being a world partner, sending help to Italy and Iran and a supporter of the world order. Gathering ‘friends’ has been an active part of Chinese foreign policy for the last decade and the direction of state responses to this outbreak was closely monitored and categorised. This won’t be forgotten. Chinese aid rarely comes without tight strings (see the Belt and Road initiative) and being a supporter of the world order essentially means the nation state, as a way to neutralise any criticism of what happens within its own borders. However, help is needed more than words and restorative actions will be remembered more than words.
Trump is no diplomat and isn’t striving to be one. He knows his market and plays to his consumers. Stigmatising the Chinese people is the wrong solution and won’t solve this present crisis. However, the pressure should be on the Chinese Government. The location and likely cause of the outbreak are known knowns. The hushed up reaction is known too costs us time and lives. The defensive pressure on small countries is also known. The belated, poor response of many governments is also known.
China defensively protecting its pride is an unsavoury and unsatisfactory route. Denying or ignoring the facts brings us back to one of the primary, starting points for the pandemic itself. Accepting the responsibility and learning from a fall can mature the right strains of nationalistic pride.