Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

It seems incredibly premature, and perhaps to some distasteful, to be placing blame on anyone for the outbreak of a deadly pandemic while we are still in the throes of the crisis. Indeed, looking for answers of this sort will not stop people dying. But, in the fullness of time, the question of blame will be one that it is necessary to examine, and even today some fringes of the media are doing so. It is therefore a question worth considering. But let us be clear- such an argument is not the same as the absurd conspiracy theory that the virus was deliberately engineered and let loose; rather, the question is whether Chinese failings made the situation worse than it might otherwise have been.  

The most plausible evidence of China making the virus’ spread worse is the fact that Chinese police detained a doctor for “spreading false rumours” about a new SARS-like virus in December last year. Yes, he may now have been exonerated, but not before he had died from the virus and Covid-19 had spread across the globe. Had the Chinese government listened to these early reports, we could be in a very different situation today.

Then there is a tweet from the World Health Organisation (WHO), from 14 January, that reads as follows:  “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” This we now know to be the deadliest of mistruths. Just as the British government have been criticised for even mentioning the idea of ‘herd immunity’ and following ‘the wrong science’, is it not fair to criticise the Chinese authorities for the same failure?

At this stage, it is nobody’s place to accuse Chinese authorities of lying about the outbreak. Undoubtedly China took tough actions in measuring the spread of the virus and researching it. But the fact that Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister has said that the WHO should hereby be referred to as the “Chinese Health Organisation” because of its part in allegedly assisting the supposed cover-up is concerning and shows that the question of China’s honesty, or lack thereof, is valid.

There is also the possibility that China has changed its own figures for infections and fatalities. A leak – and it is only a leak – from American intelligence services suggests that Chinese officials have drastically under-reported the scale of the outbreak. The allegations arise after America’s total number of infections more than doubled those seen in China recently. Again, had the world known the extent of what was about to hit them, more lives may have been saved.

It may well be that all of these arguments are merely paranoid or slanderous musings from America to condemn a nation with whom it has endured a frosty relationship. Yet it does seem that the evidence for placing some blame on China is more tangible than the view that Chinese people have poor hygiene.

I am sure answers will arise in the months and years to come. For the time being, let’s not let ‘allegedly’, ‘supposedly’ and calling Covid-19 ‘the Chinese virus’ distract us from the cold, hard fact that so many people are dying. But let us not also forget that the question of who, if anyone, deserves blame or criticism for exacerbating this deadly pandemic, is vitally important if we are to avoid such disasters in future.