Boxes of protective face masks are unloaded from an Air China plane carrying medical supplies in Athens. Reuters
As the fight against a new virus shifts to Europe and beyond, China is supplying millions of masks and other desperately needed items to struggling governments, hoping to build political ties and defuse criticism that it allowed the disease to spread early on.
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Serbia's president plans to be at the airport this weekend to welcome a shipment of medical supplies from his "brother and friend," Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi's government has flown gloves and protective clothing to Liberia. It is sending 100,000 test kits to the Philippines. More than 10 flights carrying millions of masks and other supplies are bound for the Czech Republic this week.
China, said Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, is "the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.”
It’s part of an effort by the Communist Party to reshape the narrative, from one of early missteps to a nation that acted decisively to bring the outbreak under control. China is touting its deliveries of ventilators and masks overseas and dispatching its medical experts to share the lessons of its success.
China hopes to benefit from a realisation in the West of how difficult it is to bring the virus under control, said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York.
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"The Chinese government's failures ... will be less harshly viewed in light of the failures of other governments to respond effectively as well," he said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blasted the European Union and praised China for offering help when he announced a state of emergency to combat the outbreak. His country wants to join the EU, but his government has moved closer to Russia and China in a seesaw battle for influence.
"I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping and I believe in China’s help,” Vucic said. "European solidarity," he said, was just a fairy tale.
EU officials denied they were stopping aid to Serbia, but said their first priority was EU members.
China has given $20 million to the World Health Organization for COVID-19 efforts. While the EU and the US have made larger pledges to combat the disease, they are now preoccupied by the crisis at home.
The Chinese "are winning points," said Theresa Fallon, the founder of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. "Serbia thinks that China is their savior."
The WHO team also concluded the theory of a lab experiment gone wrong was “extremely unlikely,” while introducing new avenues of inquiry, chiming with China’s view that it may have originated overseas or been spread by frozen foods.
The head of the World Health Organization-led team in the central Chinese city of Wuhan probing the origins of COVID-19 said on Tuesday that cold chain transmission of the virus is a possibility and warrants further investigation.
The team arrived in Wuhan on Jan.14 and after two weeks of quarantine, visited key sites like the Huanan seafood market, the location of the first known cluster of infections, as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been involved in coronavirus research.
The group is expected to spend two more weeks in China, and will visit the seafood market at the centre of the early outbreak. It will also visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One hypothesis, rejected by China, is that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the government lab.
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