Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

The Blame Game

Apr 09, 2020
  • John Gong

    Professor at University of International Business and Economics and China Forum Expert


Click to read the special coverage on COVID-19

The horrendous COVID-19 pandemic has racked up more than a million infections and killed more than 50,000 people in two hundred countries and territories as of April 3. In the United States alone, infections number 245,373, with a death toll of 6,095.

Yet the end is nowhere in sight. Experts predict that this plague is evolving in the direction of the so-called Spanish flu, which swept the planet in three waves over a period of 18 months, infecting on some 500 million people and claiming 30 to 70 million lives.

Today we are blessed with better understanding and technology in fighting viruses. We are not likely to see the kind of mayhem that accompanied the Spanish flu. Nevertheless, every one of the 50,000 lives lost so far is one too many, regardless of his or her country of origin, religious faith or other dimensions.  

As people around the world grieve the passing of loved ones, a sense of anger, indignation and a desire to hold someone accountable naturally arises. These are inevitable and quiet understandable. China has become an easy target. Xenophobic sentiment against Chinese people has begun to emerge, especially in the United States, where we have seen the highest number of infections. Some politicians, such as Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Martha McSally and Rep. Jim Banks, are fanning negative sentiments on America’s main streets. They have even gone as far as demanding that China forgive America’s $1.3 trillion treasury debt as a means of compensation, as if the coronavirus is a wound deliberately inflicted upon the American people by China.

One reason those right-wing politicians play the blame game is that it’s part of a Republican-led pass-the-buck strategy that provides political cover for President Donald Trump’s hubris and ineptitude and the focus on this year’s presidential election. Trump needed to downplay the severity of the coming contagion to prop up the stock market. His chief of staff at the time, Mick Mulvaney, chimed in with the notorious saying that the coronavirus is the media “hoax of the day.”

The incompetence does not stop at the president. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control, and his team of researchers should take some blame for bad test kits when they first came out. That blunder alone cost America three weeks of delay, and even more damningly at the most critical moment, when America needed them most. On March 28, the New York Times published a detailed timeline by Abby Goodnough and Michael D. Shear showing how this actually happened. All in all, the Trump administration wasted two months of time doing next to nothing to protect the American people. That is a reason enough to play the blame game.

Nevertheless, the faults of the Trump administration do not negate questions of the culpability of the Chinese government — whether it is at least partly responsible for what is going on in Europe, the United States and other infected areas, or whether China should be held accountable at all.

To many honest, innocent Americans, it is quite natural for some of them to blame China, where the first few cases of COVID-19 broke out. But even that point new appears to be debatable in light of severe pneumonia cases in Italy as early as November and the latest theory that the coronavirus has lain dormant in humans for years.

Epidemiologists never stress the geographical origins of a virus. Viruses are a human problem, knowing no national boundaries, holding no passports and potentially affecting anyone. That is why the World Health Organization assigned the name COVID-19. It avoids any racial or territorial stigma by association.

It would be downright insane and immoral to hold a country accountable for a virus just because it erupted there. For example, there is evidence today that the devastating Spanish flu originated at Camp Funston, now Ft. Riley, in Haskell County, Kansas — nowhere near Spain. President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send American troops to France in World War I was largely responsible for spreading the virus to Europe and the rest of the world.

By the way, Haskell County, Kansas, is just minutes from the Fourth Congressional District once represented by a congressman named Mike Pompeo, the current U.S. secretary of state, who had wantonly used the term “Wuhan virus” before switching to parrot Trump’s term, “Chinese virus.”

Following Pompeo’s lead, wouldn’t we need to rename the Spanish flu — a virus that killed 30 to 70 million people — the Kansas flu? Will Sens. Cotton and McSally and Rep. Banks encourage the descendants of the victims to line up to sue Uncle Sam for compensation, with interest payments added for 100 years?

That is of course rubbish. By the same token, to those Americans who still believe in this thesis, we have to patiently articulate to them the logical insanity underlying this line of reasoning, while passionately extending to them our best wishes and aids for their recovery. We must do as much as we can to help save lives from Maine to California.

The blame game of Sens. Cotton and McSally, together with Rep. Banks, is of an entirely different kind. It is built on the thesis of cover-up and inaction on the part of the Chinese government. Their most powerful ammunition so far is a scientific study by a team of researchers at the University of Southampton and several other institutions within and outside of China entitled, “Effect of non-pharmaceutical interventions for containing the COVID-19 outbreak in China.” Non-pharmaceutical interventions, NPIs, are three categories of quarantine measures that were adopted in Wuhan, including the final lockdown measure imposed on the city.

This study has been widely misquoted by right-wing voices in the U.S., in citing one aspect of the simulations while omitting others.. The most important conclusions coming out of that paper in my opinion are:

“If NPIs could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier in China, cases could have been reduced by 66%, 86%, and 95%, respectively, together with significantly reducing the number of affected areas. However, if NPIs were conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks later, the number of cases could have shown a threefold, sevenfold, and eighteenfold increase across China, respectively.”

The often misquoted one is the emphasis on reducing infections by 95 percent, assuming NPIs were begun three weeks before January 20, which is the date quoted in this paper as the starting date of NPIs that ultimately culminated in a complete citywide lockdown three days later. The right-wing media outlets are not going to mention the eighteenfold reduction if the Chinese government were to procrastinate for three more weeks. The three-weeks earlier adoption of NPIs is a theoretical simulation that never had a chance to be tried.

According to news reports, Gao Fu, China’s CDC director, first got news of the problem in Wuhan on Dec. 30 (aside from a series of events that included the unfortunate questioning of Dr. Li Wenliang by the Wuhan police). Gao sent a team of experts to Wuhan the next day, which was the day before New Year’s Day.

Three days later, on Jan. 3, according to the New York Times, Gao had a telephone conversation with Robert Redfield, the U.S. CDC director. That was likely the first time China officially notified the U.S. of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, which was subsequently referred to by China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Again, according to the New York Times report, another telephone conversation between the two CDC heads occurred several days later during which Gao Fu was said to burst into tears based on Redfield’s account.

On Jan. 11, China released the genome sequence of the coronavirus, which was critical information needed by other countries as they began developing test kits.

Based on the reported sequence of events, it is likely that China’s central government had a fairly good grasp of the situation in Wuhan by around Jan. 10. Gao’s bursting into tears on the phone testifies to his full understanding of the situation by that time. The government began to take resolute action on Jan. 20 according to the University of Southampton paper.

Looking back, the time lag, if any, in which the Chinese government perhaps could have done better, is at most 10 days earlier. Therefore, the Southampton paper’s hypothetical scenario of action three weeks earlier really doesn’t exist, other than on paper. Blaming China based on that is totally groundless.

Could China have acted 10 days earlier? Keep in mind that the coronavirus was new and little understood. And locking down a city of 20 million people is something nobody had done before. There are many factors that decision-makers would have had to weigh painstakingly in those mind-boggling days before Jan. 20. In hindsight, it is easy to make judgments about what could have been done and what should have been done better, in light of the timing. But, by that standard, the political leaders in Europe and the United States also failed even more miserably in terms of coming up with swift actions. History will judge one day that China’s delay of 10 days, in the worst-case scenario, is not the result of any intentional cover-up but probably simply the result of the result of the time required for preparations, including those related to economic concerns.

Even if one admits the validity of a 10-day delay, there is no certainty that faster action would have made a material difference with regard to the rest of the world. In a counterfactual way, it may have delayed the outbreak but not likely avoided it. By comparison the delay by the Trump administration in the United States was shamefully irresponsible, given what it could be seen in China.  

The source of the COVID-19 pandemic is a vicious and cunning virus, and we humans are putting up a tough fight. Blaming China is not only unfair but also counterproductive. This is not a time to play the blame game. If there is blame to be assigned, blame the virus. This is the time to unite, to cooperate and to help each other. We understand the pain of many people around the world who have lost loved ones. My heart goes out to all of them, be they Chinese, Americans, Italians, Spaniards, Iranians, French, Germans or anyone else.

You might also like
Back to Top