China may present a ‘sanitised’ picture - GulfToday

China may present a ‘sanitised’ picture

Covid-19 WHO team in China

Experts from China and the World Health Organization (WHO) joint team wearing face masks visit the Wuhan Tongji Hospital in Wuhan. Reuters

The visit by a WHO team to Wuhan sounds significant at first sight, but it may not yield the desired result or depict the right picture, thanks to strict Chinese government controls.

A global team of researchers arrived on Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins. The visit comes amid uncertainty over whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

The group sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organisation was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.

Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.

Fifteen team members were to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday, but two tested positive for coronavirus antibodies before leaving Singapore and were being retested there, WHO said in a statement on Twitter.

A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.

Clearly, the Chinese appear sensitive to international media reaction to their handling of the coronavirus. According to Reuters, criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers such as doctors warned. A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term to a citizen-journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of this year’s coronavirus outbreak on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” her lawyer said.

Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the Christmas holiday season to minimise Western attention and scrutiny.

US President Donald Trump has regularly criticised Beijing for covering up the emergence of what he calls the “China virus”.

By allowing the WHO team, the Chinese could be putting up some semblance of being liberal to welcome any kind of international exposure over their treatment of the virus spread.

China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus’s spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.

After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef and other goods.

One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan.

“The government should be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University. Some members of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced they hadn’t received valid visas.

According to WHO’s published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.

A year after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, the city is now bustling, with few signs that it was once the epicentre of the outbreak in China.

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