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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
With practically the whole world facing an economic free-fall from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to inquire as to how all of this came to be.
Pinning down the precise date or single source of the first infection is difficult. The two leading theories suggest that the virus originated in bats, jumped to an intermediary source, then made its way to humans. The other possibility is that the “virus was largely non-pathogenic before making the transition to humans, and only evolved into it’s [sic] current deadly form within the human population.”
There are also competing conspiracy theories that suggest the virus somehow escaped a bio-weapons lab in Wuhan, China. According to some Chinese state-run media, however, it was the U.S. Army that spread the disease in Wuhan.
These claims are simply nonsense; however, they do demonstrate that media segments in the U.S. and China are engaging in something akin to a propaganda war. A timeline of events will add some clarity to how this pandemic has spread so rapidly.
We Don’t Know When the Initial Coronavirus Infection Occurred
Because we don’t fully understand how the virus came to infect humans, we also don’t know when the initial infection occurred. What we do know is that sometime last December, Chinese healthcare workers discovered the infection and its associated virus, and they reported it. But the Chinese government arrested the whistleblowers, destroyed blood samples and then began a campaign to cover it all up.
By New Year’s Day 2020, Chinese authorities finally notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the existence of the virus, while claiming that human-to-human transmission of this new strain of coronavirus was rare. The WHO then notified the global community, unfortunately repeating the Chinese false claim about human-to-human transmission.
On January 14, a WHO Twitter post stated, “Preliminary investigations conducted by Chinese authorities found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmissions of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan, China.” But Beijing knew that human-to-human transmission was occurring because Chinese healthcare workers began becoming ill around mid-December.
The Chinese Government’s Ruse Succeeded Long Enough to Hide the COVID-19 Outbreak
Indeed, the Chinese government’s ruse succeeded long enough to hide the COVID-19 outbreak that officials allowed a Lunar New Year’s banquet in Wuhan on January 15 with tens of thousands of people sharing food. Travel to and from the city and province continued, permitting the virus to escape China and infect the world at large. Zhou Xianwang, the Mayor of Wuhan, said that “5 million people had left the city before travel restrictions were imposed ahead of the Chinese New Year.”
The Chinese government could no longer hold to its false claim regarding transmission once the outbreak spread in China and abroad. Beijing finally quarantined Wuhan on January 23, but by then the outbreak was well on its way to becoming a pandemic. What’s worse is that scientists and the Chinese government knew that China was particularly vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak stemming from bats. After all, the Chinese government funded a key study.
Chinese Markets Do Not Always Have Adequate Health Safety Measures
Bats have long been known as a vector for spreading coronaviruses. Indeed, a 2007 study of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, suggested that another coronavirus outbreak “can return if conditions are fit for the introduction, mutation, amplification, and transmission of this dangerous virus.”
Because people in southern China have a penchant for eating exotic animal foods, the markets that sell these foods do not always have adequate health safety measures to ensure biosecurity. Essentially, it was due to poor hygiene and improper food storage that allowed this new strain of coronavirus to spread among a human population, just as it had during the SARS outbreak.
That Chinese wet markets are a breeding ground for various forms of viruses is well known. But why people frequent these markets despite the health risk may be attributed to another disruption in China’s food supply.
Between August 2018 and August 2019, China’s pig population was hit by a swine flu epidemic, forcing farmers and government authorities to cull nearly 40% of China’s pigs. For perspective, that equates to a quarter of the world’s pigs.
It’s no surprise that China has such a large swine population, because pork is the favored meat in the country. Also not surprising is the increase in the price of pork that the swine flu sparked. Making matters worse, China was in the midst of a trade war with the United States, and the price of many food staples increased because of China’s dependence on imports.
Though it would be easy to place some blame on the U.S. tariffs, it would be disingenuous at best. Swine flu devastated the Chinese pig population because China mismanaged, and in some cases exacerbated, the problem to begin with. Again, for perspective, Russia suffered a swine flu outbreak in 2007, but it took the flu 10 years to spread from the origin of the outbreak in the Caucasus region to Siberia. It took only six months for the swine flu to spread throughout China once it entered the country.
It is hard to know if the spike in food prices or the availability of staples had any impact on the overcrowding of live animals to fulfill demand in China’s wet markets, but it is difficult to ignore the possibility. If poor hygiene were indeed a factor, it would help explain why the Lunar New Year festivities were allowed to continue in Wuhan. The Chinese government would want to assuage public concern by displaying a plethora of food and festivities in the midst of several long-running crises.
The outbreak and subsequent cover-up, however, sparked anger in China. Beijing desperately needed a scapegoat for the start of what has become a deadly pandemic, especially as the nation grapples with its own economic downturn. A propaganda war with the U.S. could be one such attempt to deflect criticism.
Over the Past Two Months, China Has Increased Its Verbal Attacks on the US
Over the past two months, China has increased its verbal attacks on the U.S., largely stemming from the criticism China has received over the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, Beijing has gone so far as to threaten the U.S. supply of antibiotics (97% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China) and threaten electronic attacks against U.S. warships.
The Trump administration, on the other hand, seems content to refer to the COVID-19 coronavirus as the “China virus,” which rankles China. That phrasing is also being criticized in the U.S., but the administration shows no intention of backing off because it wants to ensure that China doesn’t escape scrutiny for its role in spreading the virus.
The problem with a war of words is that it may not stay just words. China’s threat to cut off the U.S. antibiotic supply is profoundly significant regardless of how serious Beijing is. Washington has leverage over China’s food and energy supply, but no one wants to see matters escalate to that level.
It’s worth considering that the U.S. can fix its medications supply problem domestically, but China cannot fix its food or energy security without outside help. Hopefully, this talk just remains that.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of globalization. If anything, it shows that some aspects of global supply chains are out of balance. Why anyone in government or private industry would think that manufacturing an entire medical product line half a world away from its biggest consumer was a good idea is hard to fathom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed significant gaps in governmental responses to public health emergencies. China did indeed mislead the world, but other nations also have struggled to contain the outbreak since they became fully aware of the situation. Make no mistake – fighting a virus is incredibly difficult and missteps were bound to happen regardless of government competency.
For now, we the public have to do our part to help by following the guidelines provided by the medical community. What China did cannot be undone, and Beijing must be held accountable. For now, however, helping our respective communities is far more pressing.