While the world continues to battle a deadly threat, two superpowers seem to be making Covid-19 a pawn in their fight for supremacy.
MOST of us take US President Donald Trump’s words with a pinch of salt. We all know he is inconsistent, temperamental, erratic and well, some would say, even unstable.
It must be difficult to work at the White House, given the continuous dismissals of key staff, and even more arduous for its diplomats worldwide.
Then there is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is resolutely on a war path with China. The rivalry with another big gun is understandable, but the obsession is unnerving because Pompeo indulges in daily tirades against the republic. But for the rest of the world, it’s unsettling because no country would fancy being caught in the crossfire.
The Americans and Chinese are equally important to the world, so taking sides is the last thing we need to be doing. But the blame game isn’t helping anyone, especially when we’re all still battling the dreaded virus. The back and forth between them has left us none the wiser and bewildered.
So, where did the virus come from? The wet market in Wuhan, which sells exotic animal meat, or a laboratory not far from it? Either way, the devastating consequence is over 276,000 deaths and 4.02 million infected across the globe.
The answer remains unknown, but Pompeo claims he has “enormous evidence, ” although he has yet to back his claims. Trump, without divulging details, has also claimed he has seen evidence the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source.
If you read some of the media reports, the laboratory is often depicted as a secret lab, like some kind of Cold War setting from a James Bond movie. However, it isn’t because it was set up with the help of France and is widely known to the science community.
Ironically, both Trump and Pompeo seem to have conveniently ignored the US Director of National Intelligence, who said its analysts were still examining the origins of the outbreak. The gist is that there is “wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”
The editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Richard Horton, had said it’s “not helpful” and “unfair” to blame China for being the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, and added “China isn’t responsible for this pandemic. It just happened.”
The Lancet is a reputable weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal and the world’s oldest and best-known of its kind.
Then, there’s the recent CNN report which said intelligence shared among Five Eyes nations indicates it is “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus outbreak was a result of an accident in a laboratory, and instead, originated in a Chinese market. CNN quoted two Western officials, who cited an intelligence assessment that appears to contradict claims by both Trump and Pompeo.
The countries in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition is made up of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These nations share a broad range of intelligence in one of the world’s tightest multilateral arrangements.
The problem with leaders like Trump and Pompeo, who have been bashing “Communist China” in their rhetoric ahead of the US presidential election, is that they like to think, or try to convince their listeners, that China runs inferior, sub-standard laboratories. This is just a well-orchestrated political and media campaign, with the support of its allies in Europe, Australia, and some say, Taiwan and India, too, to cast aspersions on China.
But the Wuhan Institute is a top-notch laboratory which has, for years, collaborated with its global counterparts. One significant cooperation is with James Le Duc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas, one of the largest active biocontainment facilities on a US campus, which was closely involved in training the Wuhan institute’s staff from before it opened in January 2018.
Le Duc, who toured the lab just before it began operations, said scientists from the Wuhan institute had been active in ongoing dialogue facilitated by science bodies from the US and China, via participating in discussions and sharing their work. He also defended the institute’s deputy director Shi Zhengli, whose work in researching viruses in bats made her a target for conspiracy theorists, according to the South China Morning Post. She is the research scientist who discovered the link between bats and the original SARS virus which afflicted the world in 2003.
“She has participated in each of our dialogues; in every session, she has been fully engaged, very open and transparent about her work, and eager to collaborate, ” Le Duc was quoted by the SCMP.
It’s common knowledge now that Trump didn’t take the virus seriously initially, dismissing it as a type of common flu and completely ignoring its deadly threat.
Putting a timeline to his series of follies, on Feb 26, Trump was reported saying, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” Then on March 27, he still defined the coronavirus “a flu, ” or a germ.
China has naturally faced criticism for its lack of transparency with its initial slow response to the outbreak first reported in December. It’s undeniable that bureaucratic China doesn’t practise the kind of openness and swiftness in dealing with information like other democratic nations.
But scepticism remains rife over the details of confirmed cases and fatalities in other highly populated countries, even if they are democracies. Inexplicably, no accusations have been hurled at them.
Its either they have not been open – for economic reasons – or they have simply not conducted sufficient testing. Or, they just can’t afford it. Take your pick.
Let’s not deliberate integrity and credibility here. The world is acutely aware of the infamous confession, or rather, boasting by Pompeo at a talk in Texas A & M University on April 15,2019.
“When I was a cadet, what’s the first – what’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. (Laughter.) It’s – it was like – we had entire training courses, ” Pompeo told the audience.
When the US and its allies attacked Iraq in 2003, they justified the war with accusations that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s government’s purported links with terrorist organisations, particularly Al-Qaeda. Of course, we’ve known for a while now there were no such weapons as it was spin doctoring at its finest, and Osama bin Laden wasn’t remotely close to the scene of the “crime” either, but instead, hiding somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Likewise, the problem the US has with China isn’t about bats, viruses, tariffs, spies, technology theft, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, South China Sea, WHO membership or Huawei, but economics and the fear of being displaced at the top.
But the world is worried that as decibels from the White House increase, the flu will degenerate into nothing more than a Cold War between two superpowers.
Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 35 years in various capacities and roles. He is now group editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer. On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.