The “Chinese virus”? Does the corona virus have a nationality? Is it possible to find those responsible for causing the pandemic? With the growing number of countries affected by the epidemic, the increasing overload of health care systems, and further restrictions affecting societies, questions about the responsibility for the pandemic have begun to arise. The United States is leading the way, blaming not only China but also the World Health Organization (WHO).
President Donald Trump calls the corona virus “Chinese virus” in his speeches. According to Trump, China did not give full information about the situation in Wuhan available in time, which prevented proper preparation for the epidemic. The President of the United States also strongly criticizes the actions of the WHO. The organization is, in his opinion, China-centric. Therefore, and until it was clarified what role the WHO played in mismanagement and hiding the spread of corona virus, Donald Trump instructed his administration to withhold contributions to the organization.
Australia has also called on WHO member states to conduct an independent international investigation to clarify the circumstances of the pandemic. According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the results of such an investigation would help to face the threats posed by corona virus more effectively.
There is also a critical voice in Europe against China. There are not only suspicions that the Chinese authorities are covering up data, but also that they are spreading disinformation. The latest EU report relating to the disinformation about the corona virus published on Friday 24th April caused much controversy and media speculation. According to Reuters, the original version of the report was changed under pressure from Chinese diplomats. According to the agency, the final version of the report has been softened in comparison with the original version. However, this was not confirmed by the EU spokesperson.
The published version of the EU report still contains passages on China. It indicates that China is trying to limit any mention of Wuhan as a source of corona virus. In addition, some state-controlled social media continue to disseminate the theory that the Wuhan outbreak is linked to US military representatives. The report also points out that there is significant evidence of China’s covert actions on social media, such as circumventing the rules of advertising and posting information that praises China’s conduct in fighting the epidemic and, at the same time, attacks the United States. China wants to be seen as a leader in the fight against the pandemic and drawn out allegations that it has made the crisis worse by trying to cover up the scale of the problem in Wuhan.
China does not want to be treated as a source of the pandemic. As a result, it is publicizing all aid activities in favor of other countries. The EU report shows that the strategy adopted in Europe is producing positive results. Opinion polls conducted in some European countries show that China is seen to be more helpful than the EU in fighting the pandemic.
This perception of China may be fostered by the media coverage of the assistance provided by China to Italy. Even when China itself was struggling with a rather difficult situation in its country, it sent doctors to Italy to support its Italian colleagues in the fight against the corona virus. At the same time, China sent 30 tons of medical supplies to Italy (including antivirals, respirators, and protective masks).
The Polish Minister of Health, Łukasz Szumowski, also informed about very good cooperation with China in terms of exchanging experience in the fight against corona virus. In mid-March, when Poland began to struggle with the lack of protective measures, China declared that it would provide Poland with ten thousand COVID-19 detection tests, twenty thousand N-95 masks, five thousand protective suits, five thousand medical goggles, ten thousand disposable medical gloves, and ten thousand shoe covers.
The positive image of China was also supported by media information on the activities undertaken by the founder of the Alibaba platform. Jack Ma donated protective masks and corona virus tests to Europe and the United States.
It seems that the rhetoric of European politicians towards China and its role in causing the pandemic is much milder than that of Donald Trump. The decision of the United States to stop paying contributions to the WHO was criticized by the head of German diplomacy Heiko Maas. Australia’s proposals for an independent international investigation are also treated with caution in Europe. For example, the UK and French authorities believe that at this stage, it is more important to tackle the effects of the pandemic and not to find those responsible.
It is currently difficult to predict how China will be perceived in Europe once the epidemic is over. It seems that the final scale of the disease and deaths and the effects of the economic crisis will determine the attitude of European societies towards China. European governments are now focusing more on fighting the epidemic and finding solutions for entrepreneurs in the face of the economic crisis than on finding blame for the situation. This may, of course, change with the deepening economic crisis and the independence of European economies from China in terms of medical supplies and protective measures.
Election campaigns in an economic crisis may also become a factor in pointing those responsible for the pandemic. On the one hand, the opposition parties in selected European countries may use the pandemic to attack the ruling parties, accusing them of not responding properly to the epidemic and the economic crisis it has caused. On the other hand, under such conditions, the ruling parties may be more inclined to direct voters’ attention towards China as responsible for the economic crisis affecting voters.
EEAS Special Report Update: Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation around the COVID-19/Coronavirus Pandemic (updated 2 – 22 April), https://euvsdisinfo.eu/eeas-special-report-update-2-22-april/
*** The author is Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw ***