The ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2). The outbreak was identified in Wuhan, China, on 1 December 2019.The World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and recognised it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. As of 24 April 2020, more than 2.73 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in 185 countries and territories, resulting in more than 192,000 deaths. More than 752,000 people have recovered although there may be a possibility of relapse or reinfection. The biggest debate, globally, right now is whether China is to be blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. US President Donald Trump has been referring to the Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the virus as the “Wuhan virus”. If one sees commentaries from the West, more than a bit of resentment against China is visible.
As the pandemic continues its destructive course, two theories concerning the origins of the Covid-19 are being increasingly debated at the global level. One, that the coronavirus pandemic may have been the result of an accident at a biosafety level 4 laboratory in China’s Wuhan city. Two, that China deliberately launched a biological attack in order to position itself as the single greatest superpower, while flattening its rivals’ industrial and economic capacity.
Both theories have strong supporters armed with a battery of ‘facts.’ The problem is not with data, though. China is known for its habitual secrecy, big ambitions, and absolute disregard for life or the environment. Allied to that is the fact that bio labs everywhere have been a source of serious threats, with the big powers seeing them as potentially usable as weapons of mass destruction. Biological weapons are the deadliest weapon in any arsenal, since unlike nuclear weapons, there is no way to map their spread. Such a hypothesis stems from the fact that given the historical antecedents of a country like China, sacrificing the lives of a few thousand individuals in its quest to become a global superpower is not unforeseen by any means. Historically countries have been long using them in warfare. During World War II, the Soviets used a deadly bacterium (tularaemia) against German troops that caused skin ulcers, severe vomiting, and diarrhoea. Japan’s past bio-research included experiments on prisoners of war, and against Chinese cities. That however proved to be a blunder. It rebounded and killed more than a thousand Japanese personnel. Historical evidence, therefore, shows that authoritative regimes will use everything possible to achieve their goals. But it also shows that use of bio-weapons can harm the aggressors in turn. Scientists have since come out in support of the Wuhan lab, declaring that the virus came from natural sources. Suspicions continue, given that Chinese secrecy and its hierarchical culture prevent the transparency that is needed, and is often inevitable, in democracies. In Beijing, a public calling-out of unsafe practices is unthinkable, with the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang, and the disappearance of a critic and his girlfriend seemingly proving the point. Second, there is the clout that China commands. The World Health Organization (WHO) seriously downplayed the coronavirus threat initially. As late as mid-January, the WHO was echoing the Chinese position that the virus was not contagious.
Then there is the environmentally disastrous Chinese food habits and ‘medicine’ – usually aphrodisiacs – both of which tie up with variations of the coronavirus. Some recent researches claim that the virus didn’t originate in any lab. These suggest that the virus must have originated in the wet wildlife markets of Wuhan. Scientists say it is highly likely that the virus came from bats but first passed through an intermediary animal in the same way that another coronavirus – the 2002 Sars outbreak – moved from horseshoe bats to cat-like civets before infecting humans. One animal implicated as an intermediary host between bats and humans is the pangolin. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says they are “the most illegally traded mammal in the world” and are prized for their meat and the claimed medicinal properties of their scales.The virus probably jumped from bats to pangolins and when the pangolins were consumed by humans, the virus was transmitted to them. Consuming pangolin scale is recommended in Chinese traditional medicine. The question as to how did the virus emerge is indeed a matter of speculation and debate.
Despite the global catastrophe, Beijing will evade a strong investigation and calls for reparations and try to retrieve its position with assistance. That’s not good enough. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the world. If that change has to be for the better, Beijing has to be far more willing to open up its bio-related facilities to inspection. Alongside China, other powers will also have to finally end the idea of a biological war, and power up absolute adherence to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, a treaty that bans a group of bio-weapons. A European Union report accuses China of spreading disinformation about the crisis. US President Donald Trump has also repeatedly attacked China for its handling of the outbreak, and the state of Missouri is suing the Chinese government, accusing it of doing little to stop the spread of the virus. A top Chinese diplomat in London, Ms Chen Wen told the BBC her country could not agree to any international investigation.
“The independent inquiry is politically motivated. We are fighting the virus at the moment, we are concentrating all our efforts on fighting against the virus. Why talk about an investigation into this? This will divert not only attention, it will divert resources. This is a politically motivated initiative. I think no-one can agree on this… It would serve nobody any good.”
Ms Chen said there were lots of rumours about the origins of the virus but such misinformation was dangerous, she claimed, and said it was like a political virus and as dangerous as coronavirus itself, if not even more so.
However the European Union Reports claim that the Chinese officials and state media have been trying to deflect blame for the outbreak, curtailing any mentions of Wuhan as the origin of the virus. They are retaliating by calling it racism and discrimination and are also propagating rival conspiracy theories, the most popular being that the virus originated in the US and was brought to China by the US military during world military games in Wuhan last year. Similarly, theories that the virus originated in Italy have been floating around in Chinese social media and TV channels.
Governments in Europe have so far been wary of engaging in a diplomatic row with China at a sensitive time. China is the largest export economy in the world. With a total GDP of $14 trillion, it accounts for 12% of global trade, with the USA being its largest trade partner.With regard to the ongoing pandemic, countries are dependent on Beijing for deliveries of vital equipment in dealing with the crisis and want to keep the flow of information open to help understand what happened this time and prevent future outbreaks, and experts say the approach needs to be carefully calibrated. In the US by contrast, the issue of China is becoming highly politicised in an election year with competing calls for a tough line on Beijing and pressure to investigate the origins of the virus. However, what is all the more alarming to note is that China is the largest foreign owner of U.S. Treasury securities accounting for about 22 percent of all U.S. Treasuries held by non-Americans. Many American and other economic analysts have expressed concerns on account of the People’s Republic of China’s “extensive” holdings, as part of their reserves, of United States government debt.Given its relatively low savings rate, the U.S. economy depends heavily on foreign capital inflows from countries with high savings rates. China’s policy of intervening in currency markets to limit the appreciation of its currency against the dollar (and other currencies) and large current account surpluses have made it the world’s largest and fastest growing holder of foreign exchange reserves, especially dollar-denominated assets. She has invested a large share of these reserves in U.S. private and public securities. U.S. policymakers have expressed concern over the size of China’s holdings of U.S. government debt. For example, some contend that China might decide to sell a large share of its U.S. securities holdings, which could induce other foreign investors to sell off their U.S. holdings as well, which in turn could destabilize the U.S. economy. Others argue that China could use its large holdings of U.S. debt as a bargaining chip in its dealing with the United States. A Chinese attempt to sell a large portion of its dollar holdings could reduce the value of US’s remaining dollar holdings, and any subsequent negative shocks to the U.S. (and global) economy could dampen U.S. demand for Chinese exports. In this context, any attempt by the US to get economic sanctions imposed upon China can lead to a serious setback for the American economy, which even the top notch leaders in Washington DC are aware of hence all the talks of teaching China a hard lesson or threatening them with dire consequences can be seen as a purely political tantrum. The amount of economic influence wielded by China globally has gone to such an extent that the World Health Organization, has absolved China of any responsibility whatsoever regarding the outbreak of the Coronavirus and opines that the novel Coronavirus has a natural animal origin, and was not a manipulated or constructed virus.
All said and done, the questions surrounding the origins of the Covid 19 is indeed a matter of intense speculation as to whether it was deliberately engineered in the private labs of Wuhan or did it pass naturally through a complex biological cycle involving bats, pangolins and subsequently humans, the latter being considered as a more plausible explanation by the scientists for the pandemic. While the blame games between the two economic superpowers USA and China continue, there is scarcely debating the fact that the effects of this virus is assuming alarming proportions. Whether or not it was deliberate or natural, there is no denying the fact that the callous (or if I may say odious) attitude on part of Beijing in concealing the potential spread of the virus tantamount to an act of blatant aggression and mischief thereby endangering virtually the entire mankind on this planet earth. Some argue that the fact that they chose to hide the rapid transmission of the pandemic in their nation courtesy strict media censorship and allowing it to spread globally bears testimony to a plan pursued by the Chinese Communist totalitarian state, in its quest to become a global superpower at the cost of its rivals and competitors. Furthermore, they are able to sell poor quality medical equipment and testing kits to the ailing nations at high prices thereby incurring huge profits which might be used to further their nefarious designs of dominating global politics. According to Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University,
“……….Covid-19 will accelerate the shift in power and influence from west to east.’’
Herein the issue of the ‘shift in the balance of power becomes important. China’s government is working hard to turn Covid-19, into a national success story. It claims that the draconian measures which were taken by the government to suppress the disease have largely worked. Now, by offering assistance to Italy and other badly affected countries, China is reinforcing its credentials as a global leader. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the virus has become a soft power tool to overtake its superpower rival, the US. A critical part of this narrative is Beijing’s ‘supposed’ success in battling the virus. A steady stream of propaganda articles, tweets and public messaging, in a wide variety of languages, touts China’s achievements and highlights the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance. Going by the order of the things, China may take the crisis as an opportunity to start setting new rules according to its own global governance vision. China’s challenge to US hegemony was already strengthening on many fronts before the Covid-19 crisis erupted. The pandemic may accelerate this shift. A redesigning of the unipolar world order might well be on the cards.
How does this situation augur for China’s immediate neighbour and prospective rival, our own country India?
India’s role in tackling the virus and the success hitherto achieved in preventing a community transmission may well alleviate its status as a world power, with the world looking up to it as a leader in combating any global pandemic be it Chinese or any other random country. The threat faced by our country from the aggressive designs of China can only be countered if India emerges in flying colours the post-Covid 19 phase. India must seize the moment in order to counterbalance the increasing trend of Chinese hegemony over the world, so that it can safeguard its sovereignty and at the same time, emerge as a major player in Asian as well as world politics. The situation is ripe for us to “rediscover manufacture”. This may not happen automatically, but would require proper planning. The present crisis has shown up certain vulnerabilities of India’s manufacturing. There is a need for duty-free imports of manufacturing equipment as well as for raw materials that are not available in India, such as special alloys and steel. These new starts could be given fiscal incentives as well as lower cost finance to set them up and make them viable, and State governments could provide incentives as well. A well thought out intervention could therefore convert current challenges into a great opportunity for India to emerge from the pandemic as a potential world leader.
Statement of the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”. World Health Organization. 30 January 2020.
 Tara Kartha, The Print, 3 April 2020.
 Graham Reidfearn, The Guardian, 15 April 2020.
 BBC News, 24 April 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-52420536.
 Quoted from Shekhar Gupta, What China did wrong with Coronavirus and what it did’nt, Cut the Clutter, Episode 428, 26 March 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYFBTMP5Vts
Report of the Observatory of Economic Complexity. https://oec.world/en/profile/country/chn/
 “Is China’s Ownership of U.S. Debt A National Security Threat?” by Kenneth Rapoza, Forbes, 23 January 2013
 Wayne.M. Morrison and Marc Labonte, China’s Holdings of U.S. Securities: Implications for the U.S. Economy, CRS Report for Congress, 19 August 2018.
 Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 28 March 2020.
(The Author is an Research Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])