By Kalinga Seneviratne*
With the spread of COVID-19 to Europe and the US a bout of Sinophobia seems to have infected the western media. On March 29, Australia’s 60-minute program – that is well known for sensational reporting – broadcast a program that portrayed China as the villain of the COVID-19 pandemonium, and just stopped short of calling for war against China.
This reminded me of the propaganda that the Anglo-American media broadcast around the world about alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that Saddam Hussein had, that led to the attack and invasion of Iraq in 2003.
With the US surpassing China on the number of COVID-19 deaths, the western media would like us to believe that this is because of some form of bio-warfare that originated from China. The 60-minute program claimed that the virus originated in Wuhan in mid-November and China hid it from the world until late January. By which time they have allowed thousands of Chinese to fly out of Wuhan to all parts of the world. They showed a map that tends to suggest China has sent an army of bio-warfare soldiers to infect the world.
Unfortunately, the Indian media is no different to the Anglo-American media in their coverage of the COVID-19 threat. There is a clear slant towards labelling the virus as a Chinese virus. I watched on India Today television a report on how the TikTok application is used in India to discourage Muslims from following the social distancing measures introduced by the Indian government. They claimed it is campaign by Pakistan using this application and they labelled TikTok as a “Chinese App” implying a Chinese hand of course.
As the inefficiencies of western governments and especially their health systems are exposed, we are bound to see more such reports coming out of Anglo-American media, in particular. If the Asian media is not able to confront this with a counter narrative, the stage will be set to pacify populations around the world for a possible war scenario in Asia, similar to the chaos created in the Middle East beginning with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For few years now, even going back to the Obama administration, the US has been looking for an excuse to start a war in Asia. Deft diplomacy by South Korean leader Moon Jae-in avoided such a scenario in East Asia, and some skilful geo-political diplomacy by the Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte has avoided a similar scenario in the South China Sea.
While the virus wreaks havoc across the globe, many conspiracy theories are being transmitted pointing out an outbreak of bio-warfare, with US and China accusing each other. It appears that the conspiracy theorists do not know that there is a Biological Weapons Convention for which both countries have signed up.
The global media is becoming the battleground in a propaganda war between the two sides. One of the most potent weapons the western media has is to paint China as a secretive authoritarian state that hides the truth – thus anything they say cannot be trusted. This narrative is widely at play currently in the Anglo-American media and unfortunately transmitted by some Asian media.
While the 60-mnute programme said that China had hidden information about the virus, the truth is that on December 31, 2019, WHO China office was informed by the Chinese health authorities that “cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology” has been detected in Wuhan City, and on January 3, 2020, a total of 44 patients with such pneumonia have been reported to the WHO by China.
When the WHO asked for more information the Chinese promptly provided reports giving details of the clinical signs and symptoms. They also said that some patients were operating dealers and vendors at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan City.
On January 11-12, WHO received further detailed information from the Chinese National Health Commission about the outbreak. China informed WHO that the market was closed on January 1 and that a total of 763 close contacts including healthcare workers, had been identified and followed up.
China also shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus on January 12, “which will be of great importance for other countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits”, WHO said in a statement on January 12.
From February 9 to 24 WHO sent a 25-member joint-mission to China that included experts from the US, Japan, Germany, Singapore, Russia, Korea as well as from China and the WHO. During the 9-day visit there was a lot of consultation with the Chinese health authorities along with collection of testing samples from patients.
WHO released a 40-page report of its findings, pointing out that they have been receiving daily reports from Chinese authorities on investigation clusters and household transmission studies.
WHO paid glowing tribute to China’s handling of the health emergency, saying “in the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” and they recommend that the world urgently look at China’s experience in responding to COVID-19, because it “provides vital lessons for the global response”.
All this information is freely available from the WHO website. But instead the western media ignores it and continues to paint China as a threat to global peace claiming that its “authoritarian” model hides information. To balance the picture, media needs also to consider China’s claim of a bio-warfare conspiracy.
On August 5, 2019, New York Times (NYT) reported that a US Army deadly germ research center in Fort Detrick in Maryland was shut down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over safety concerns. The report also said that in 2009, research at the institute was suspended because it was storing pathogens not listed in its database. “The institute is a biodefense center that studies germs and toxins that could be used to threaten the military or public health, and also investigates disease outbreaks,” noted NYT.
Just a few weeks before the first COVID-19 victims were identified in Wuhan, an exercise named “Event 201” was held at John Hopkins Centre for Heath Security in Baltimore, Maryland, that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where the theme was stimulating a high-level pandemic exercise, which produces 65 million deaths.
The press release says: “Event 201 simulates an outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people that eventually becomes efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic. The pathogen and the disease it causes are modeled largely on SARS, but it is more transmissible in the community setting by people with mild symptoms”.
It goes on to describe the virus as originating in pig farms in Brazil that quietly spreads to the community. It then transmits by air travel to the US, Europe and China, and ultimately creates health scare chaos globally.
While the COVID-19 outbreak is spreading at a rapid pace in the US, there is a widespread theory espoused especially by the right-wing media there that the virus spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either where it was being engineered as a bio-weapon, or being studied in the lab after being isolated from animals, then was escaped or leaked because of poor safety protocol. Chinese have argued that the emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only ‘Level 4′ biosafety lab, is pure coincidence.
This is where the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) passed by the United Nations in 1972 that entered into force in March 1975 comes into play. During the Third Review Conference in 1991, State parties agreed to provide annual reports on specific activities related to the BWC such as data on research centres and laboratories, information on national biological defense research and developments programs, etc.
Media need to ask – have the US and China adhered to the BWC in their research or stimulation activities? Spread of COVID-19 and the accompanying bio-wafare conspiracy theories indicate that the BWC need an urgent review and States need to be transparent in complying with its mandate.
In a statement issued on the 45th anniversary of its implementation on March 26, the Indian government called upon the international community to help strengthen the WHO to fully and effectively to implement the BWC. In view of the 9th Review Conference of the BWC coming up in 2021, India has called upon State Parties to negotiate “a comprehensive and legally binding protocol” to the convention. India has also highlighted the dangers from the possible use, in future, of microorganisms as biological weapons by terrorists.
The international media need to shed some of its Sinophobia, to put in the public agenda the need to strengthen the BWC during its review in 2021.
* Dr Kalinga Seneviratne’s latest book “Myth of ‘Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era” was published by SAGE in January 2020.