The effect of China’s response to COVID-19 on foreign relations

29th April 2020

COVID-19 has had a dramatic influence on the world from a health, economic and social impact, the effects of which are being felt all over the globe. These are ongoing and as yet unquantifiable at the time of writing.  Whilst the virus has been widely publicised to have originated in Wuhan, China, questions towards its cause remain unsupported by factual data and has led to several conspiracy theories. Furthermore, the subsequent response to the pandemic of China’s government both domestically and towards other nations has posed questions as to how responsible and therefore accountable they should be for its spread. How this has been taken and reciprocated by other nations is now having profound implications for world relations at a time of global crisis.

There are currently over 3 million confirmed cases and over 200,000 deaths globally as a result of COVID-19.1 Many media sources have suggested that a delayed reaction or potential coverup by the Chinese government when the virus first emerged may be a significant contributor in its global spread. The remarks of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has intensified these suggestions by recently stating that China would face “consequences” if found guilty of deliberately covering up information regarding the origin and spread of the virus.2 This heated rhetoric has led to a stand-off between the two countries at a time when nations need to be working together to combat the disease. President Trump’s comments during a recent press conference of “we’re doing very serious investigations…” and “We’re not happy with China” will do little to help relations,3 directly implying that the Chinese government is responsible for more deaths and economic damage than should have been necessary had they been open about the nature of the virus in the beginning. This sentiment of blame seems to be gaining traction amongst western media with conspiracy theories starting to emerge.

Some theories, although unsubstantiated, claim that the virus may have spread from a laboratory in Wuhan, and although many reports suggest that the virus was not purposefully released, the cause is thought to be due to poor containment controls.4 5 Whilst these theories remain in circulation, China has made it clear that they are as much a victim of the virus as other nations and that countries should be working together to help each other, calling on President Trump to improve relations between the two countries.6   Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said recently: “China is a victim of COVID-19 disinformation not an instigator”.7However, relations may have been further aggravated with the US withdrawing funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO), suggesting a political power struggle over the control of organisations connected to the information and implementation of data release surrounding world health issues.8 Not all countries support the US stance on China with a spokesman for Russian President, Vladimir Putin saying that: “It is not very helpful to blame any nation without first having the facts”.9

Should China be found guilty of dishonesty and these theories be proven factual, it is unclear how governments would then quantify the cost of loss in both lives lost and economic consequences from China. The value of a human life affected by COVID-19 is currently being calculated by economists dependent on the age of the person and how likely they were to die regardless of this pandemic.10 However, this does not take into account the financial implications that an individual’s death had on their family or the moral dilemma that a price should be put on a person’s life at all.

Surely the direct and indirect costs rippling out into every sector of life would lead to reparations and a level of culpability that may draw parallels with the Second World War and other modern global events. The SARS epidemic of 2002 was far smaller than today’s COVID-19 pandemic and is estimated to have cost the global economy $40 billion dollars. With a global recession looming as a result of this pandemic, the global economy is likely to shrink from 0.5% to 1.175% with losses predicted in the trillions. 11 12 13

Reparations challenges from law firms in the US are currently underway on behalf of thousands of individuals as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic. Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of American business owners and individuals seeking reparations from the Chinese government for coronavirus related damages.14 However, the Chinese government are not giving any validity to these actions, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying “they have no factual or legal basis”, as countries are broadly protected by sovereign immunity.

The International Council of Jurists in India have gone one step further urging The United Nations Human Rights Council to make China pay “exemplary damages” for “grave offences against humanity” believing the pandemic to be a conspiracy of the Chinese government.15 They further asserted: “China’s government’s inaction in arresting the spread of the virus has resulted in recession and the loss of trillions of dollars and rendered job losses to millions of workers in India and the rest of the world”, though the Indian government were quick to distance themselves from these claims. China has also demanded an apology from the Brazilian education minister for similar suggestions after he insinuated this coronavirus pandemic was part of China’s plan for world domination.16 Australia has been one of the most vocal nations calling for an inquiry from world leaders and the World Health Organisation into the origins of Covid-19, at the expense of relations with their biggest trading partner, with China threatening a “consumer boycott”.17

Unsurprisingly China is starting to feel stigmatised and has responded strongly to these allegations. In response to a German newspaper’s call for €149 billion in reparations the Chinese government has stated they are ‘fuelling nationalism, prejudice and hostility against China’. However, this has not been done in isolation, with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, demanding honesty over the source of this coronavirus pandemic, showing the need for clarity towards China’s potential deceit is occurring at the highest levels.18  The UK has also joined with France and the US to investigate the claims amid increasing confidence from American intelligence that the virus outbreak was from a laboratory in Wuhan, not a wet market as originally claimed, without actually providing any evidence publically.19  Whether true or not the fact that western governments would publicly acknowledge an investigation would suggest a level of distrust with Chinese authorities, and such an idea is likely to stir up more bad feeling between the nations.