May 10, 2020

US Trade War on China Takes a Corona Viral Turn

Prabir Purkayastha

THE Trump administration has expanded the trade war against China to now include the Covid-19 pandemic. With more than a million already infected in the US and about sixty thousand dead, Trump’s assertions in February that this is just a small flu has now been replaced by China did it, even talking about making China pay reparations. A part of this is Trump’s dire need to scapegoat someone, or some country, for the US total incompetence in handling the Covid-19 epidemic. But that is not all. The anti-China campaign fits into the larger war that the US was already waging against China.  The US hegemony as the sole super power, was being challenged – economically by China with its manufacturing strength, and strategically by Russia, with its re-emergence as a global player. In the US domestic politics and its presidential election cycle, Russia is rapidly being replaced by China as the new arch villain.

As always happens, the US mainstream media loyally follows suit, whether it is the fiction of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, or Russia hacking the 2016 US elections. The recurring theme emerging from the US media, helped by suitable “leaks” from the US intelligence agencies, is that China did it, or hid it, and that is why the virus got away infecting the world. Trump’s China virus narrative is also tapping into the deep reservoir of xenophobia and racism, that is why its potency.

Let us look at the facts as we know them. This is from scientific studies that are emerging worldwide, and not from social media, or planted stories; or the ravings of Trump on prime time TV. The timeline with their sources to see how the epidemic unfolded in Wuhan and what we know about it is given below:

• The Nextstrain computational biology team’s collection 4115 genomes sampled between December 2019 and April 2020 show that an ancestor with the first mutation would have emerged in late November, early December, and the first infections around December 12-17.

• Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department, Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, on December 27, was the first to detect SARS-Cov-2 symptoms in three patients in the same family. Blood tests showed a viral infection but not a flu virus. This was immediately communicated to Wuhan and Hubei authorities.

• On December 30, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission sent out an urgent notification to medical institutions under its jurisdiction about an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city.

• The National Health Commission (NHC) dispatched a working group and an expert team in the wee hours of December 31 to Wuhan to guide epidemic response and conduct on-site investigations.

• On the same day, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released its first briefing about the outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause on its website, in which it confirmed 27 cases, told the public not to go to enclosed public places or gather in numbers, and also wear masks when going out.

• On December 31, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organisation about a new coronavirus outbreak.

• On January 1, they closed down the Wuhan seafood market, which it had reported a number of cases. It was later found that a number of infections originated outside the market, so this was not the likely origin of infection but an amplifying source.

• Dr Robert Redfield, director, Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, the apex body in the US responsible for handling all such epidemics, was briefed about the severity of the virus from his Chinese counterparts around New Year’s Day. In one grim conversation with Dr Redfield about the virus, Dr George F Gao, the director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, burst into tears.

• On January 7, China identified the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)

• On January 10, Chinese authorities reported the genetic sequence of the virus, and uploaded it on Virology and Genebank public databases on January 11-12.

• The first known death from Covid-19 was on December 11.

• On January 13, China releases its first test kit for detection of the virus.

• A week later, the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF) at Charité University of Medicine, Berlin, the leading centre for medicine in Germany, used the genetic data to create a test kit for the virus, which WHO adopted and made available to all countries.

• On January 23, Wuhan imposed complete lockdown of the city of 11 million people when officially only 400 cases had been identified through testing. Clearly, they were signalling the world that this disease was highly infectious and dangerous.

• On January 24, another 15 cities were shut down in Hubei province

• On January 30, WHO declared global health emergency of international concern, the highest level of alert that WHO can issue

In Rolling Stones, a well-known US publication, Dr Kristian Andersen said, “In scientific terms, this is lightning speed.” Dr Andersen is the director of infectious disease genomics at Scripps Research Translational Institute in California and the lead author of a very influential paper on the origins of the virus. Anderson continued, “This is difficult stuff. We have to remember that all of this happened during flu season, so a lot of people would have had symptoms that looked like Covid-19. But because of flu, discovering a novel coronavirus this fast against that backdrop is simply unprecedented” (italics mine). Andersen pointed out, “The Zika circulated in Brazil for a year and a half before anyone realised they had an epidemic and Ebola took three months to diagnose. Importantly, these are known pathogens and not a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2.”

The western media has made a lot about Dr Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist, who was reprimanded on January 3 by the Wuhan police authorities, and later died fighting the disease. He was not directly dealing with the disease, nor did he submit a report to the authorities that was suppressed as the western media makes it out to be. He shared some information on the infections in his hospital on social media.  Yes, the Wuhan police authorities did reprimand Dr Li Wenliang, for spreading rumours in social media about the novel virus, an action that was accepted by Chinese authorities later as a mistake. It was a bureaucratic knee-jerk reaction by the authorities to control what was being reported in the early stages of the epidemic in social media.

Have bureaucracies in other countries performed better? Only look at the way CDC in the US and the Trump administration dealt with the testing fiasco, the Indian scenario where we do not know who or based on what our policies are being framed. In the UK, there is periodic talk of models, as also in India, but what are the models that the governments are using are shrouded in mystery! Or the directive that has been issued by the Indian government that only information issued by the ministry of health and family welfare or the Indian Council of Medical Research can be reported by the media!

The question to answer is, did this affect the information that is shared with the world? China shared all the information it had on the nature of the infections, the genome sequence of the virus, and that it was seeing not only human to human transmission, but this transmission was high enough needing a total lockdown of a city of 11 million, and another 15 shortly after. This at a time when the Chinese had only 400 known infections!  Action speaks louder than words, and if global leaders were not listening, that is something they have to explain to their people. Instead of China bashing.

The pandemic is only uncovering the deeper fissures that are already existing, and widening existing fault lines in the world. The US has got away with brazenly stealing Iran and Venezuela’s wealth, a significant part of which was either within the US banking system, or under the financial control of the US. Can they do this with China? For instance refusing to pay back the 1.09 trillion dollars that the US owes China as debt? Or will any such overreach finally sink the dollar as countries realise the risk in making dollar the de-facto global reserve currency?