By Ronna Nirmala and Jason Gutierrez
The United States appealed to Southeast Asian countries Thursday to shut down all wet markets illegally selling wildlife, saying such trading places had been linked to animal disease communicable to humans, as Washington announced it had released $35.3 million in regional aid to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the appeal after calling on China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets, including those in its central city of Wuhan, where health experts say COVID-19 might have originated last year before the virus infected more than 2.6 million people worldwide and killed more than 186,000 others.
“Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife,” Pompeo said in a statement, referring to a major complex of stalls that sell live fish and where wild animals are often butchered right on the premises.
“I call on all ASEAN governments to do the same,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected Pompeo’s allegations, telling reporters in Beijing that “there’s no ‘wildlife wet market’ in China.”
“Instead, we have farmers’ markets and seafood markets where meat, fish, vegetables, seafood and other fresh produce are sold. A very small number of them sell live poultry,” he said. “Such markets are commonplace existence not only in China, but also in many Southeast Asian countries and a lot of developing countries.”
US aid to ASEAN
Pompeo came out with the statement hours before taking part in an online meeting on Thursday (Jakarta time) with foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Pompeo said Washington had released more than $35.3 million in emergency health funding to help the regional bloc combat the virus. That amount was on top of the $3.5 billion in public health assistance that the United States had provided countries in the region during the past 20 years, he said.
Southeast Asia has recorded some of the highest number of COVID-19 infections, with the prosperous city-state Singapore reporting 1,037 in new cases on Thursday, taking its cumulative cases to 11,178.
At the online meeting with his ASEAN counterparts on Thursday, Pompeo said the United States had released $3 million for Indonesia, which has so far confirmed 7,775 cases with 647 fatalities.
During the video-conference, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi urged countries to put aside political differences to forge international cooperation to fight the coronavirus.
“It is important that countries work together to overcome the shortcomings that are still faced by many, especially in terms of medical and protective equipment and medicines,” Retno said.
Pompeo also told his Southeast Asian counterparts that Beijing was taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic to reinforce its aggressive claims in the South China Sea.
“Even as we fight the outbreak, we must remember that the long-term threats to our shared security have not disappeared,” he said. “In fact, they’ve become more prominent.”
The video-conference participants mostly “reaffirmed their collective resolve to prioritize strengthening their public health systems” and “cooperating in research and development of vaccine and therapeutics,” according to Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
But Locsin said in a statement that his counterparts also expressed concerns “over recent developments in the South China Sea that increased tensions at a time when all efforts and resources are focused on battling the pandemic.”
“They recognized the importance of contributing to the maintenance of peace, security, stability, and the rule of law in the region amid the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “This is essential at a time when countries must not only navigate the COVID crisis, but must also prepare a post-pandemic plan of social and economic recovery.”
The Philippines has recorded 6,981 COVID-19 infections with 462 deaths as of Thursday.
US thanks Malaysia for sending gloves
During the meeting, Pompeo thanked Malaysia, as well as Cambodia and Vietnam, for their support in the pandemic fight and for helping in the continued flow of vital medical supplies into the United States.
Malaysia facilitated the speedy delivery of over 1.3 million kilograms of gloves for U.S. health care workers, he said.
Kuala Lumpur extended its COVID-19 travel curbs on Thursday by two weeks, although Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said more business sectors may be allowed to resume operations.
Malaysia, which has so far reported a cumulative tally of 5,603 coronavirus cases with 95 deaths, started a partial lockdown on March 18. The extension of its so-called movement control order would last until May 12, Muhyiddin said.
“Should the number of COVID-19 cases show significant reduction, the government may ease curbs on movement in stages in several sectors including the social sector,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address.
Bangladesh, which has reported 4,186 coronavirus infections as of Thursday, with a death toll of 127, has also announced a similar extension of movement curbs until May 5.
Pompeo announces US-ASEAN health initiative
Pompeo also announced during the video conference the formation of the U.S.-ASEAN Health Futures initiative, which would be used as a platform to enhance efforts in health security through research.
He said the United States was making an additional pledge of about $270 million to assist the most at-risk countries in fighting the coronavirus. He did not elaborate.
Washington was currently involved in training more than 70,000 pharmacists across Indonesia “so they can provide good advice and referrals” for coronavirus patients, he added.
A day earlier, during a news conference, Pompeo also criticized China for not sharing “all of the information it had” about the coronavirus.
“Instead, it covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn’t report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month until it was in every province inside of China,” he said, emphasizing that Beijing’s refusal to share samples of the virus from inside of the country with the outside world made it “impossible to track the disease’s evolution.”
Geng Shuang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, described Pompeo’s statements as “lies that discredit China’s anti-epidemic efforts.”
“Facts speak louder than words,” he said. “China has taken timely, swift and efficient epidemic prevention and control measures in an open, transparent and responsible manner.”
Globally, almost 2.7 million infections from the coronavirus have been recorded while the death toll stood at more than 188,400 as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.