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China could face lawsuits totaling trillions over handling of coronavirus

Residents wear surgical masks while crossing the road in order to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
April 08, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China could face trillions of dollars in international lawsuits for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which first emerged in Wuhan as early as November, according to a London-based think-tank.

Nations who are part of the G7 and other governments could sue the ruling Chinese Communist Party for damages to their economies and national infrastructure after the country breached the International Health Regulations, a legally binding international treaty to which China is a signatory, the Henry Jackson Society said in a report published this week.

“These breaches allowed the outbreak to rapidly spread outside Wuhan, its place of origin,” the report said, citing the failure to disclose evidence of human to-human transmission for as long as three weeks after first becoming aware of it.

Beijing also provided the World Health Organization (WHO) with “erroneous information” about the number of infections in early January, while failing to ban the trade in “dangerous viral host species for human consumption,” it said.

Chinese health authorities also allowed five million people to leave Wuhan by announcing a lockdown but not immediately implementing it, while also being aware that the coronavirus was spreading between people, the report found.

It cited a University of Southampton study which found that the spread of COVID-19 could have been reduced by around 95 percent if the authorities had acted three weeks earlier.

“Potential damages liable against China at the time of writing could run to … U.S.$4 trillion from just the G7 nations,” the report said, citing 10 potential legal avenues for action against China.

International Health Regulations

The Society recommended claimants use the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hong Kong courts, dispute resolutions through bilateral investment treaties and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The International Health Regulations bind member states in their handling of health issues in general and highly transmissible diseases in particular, and were adopted in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic during which China was also criticized over an attempted cover-up.

They require signatory states facing potential outbreaks to monitor and share all information including clinical descriptions, laboratory results, sources of infection and type of risk, numbers of human cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease, and the health measures employed to tackle it.

The report came as one of Asia’s leading religious figures said China should compensate the rest of the world for its handling of the coronavirus epidemic, which is now a pandemic.

“The Chinese regime led by the all-powerful [Chinese President Xi Jinping] and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)–not its people–owes us all an apology, and compensation for the destruction it has caused,” Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said.

“At a minimum it should write off the debts of other countries, to cover the cost of COVID-19,” Bo said. “For the sake of our common humanity, we must not be afraid to hold this regime to account.”

“Its failure has unleashed a global contagion killing thousands,” he said, also citing the University of Southampton study.

Li Wenliang Global Public Health Accountability Act

In Washington last week, a group of Senators and Representatives said they planned to introduce the “Li Wenliang Global Public Health Accountability Act,” which would authorize the president to sanction foreign officials who suppress or distort information about international public health crises, including the Wuhan coronavirus. Li was the whistle-blowing doctor who was disciplined for sharing warnings of the pandemic on social media an later died of COVID-19.

“Dr. Li tried to warn his country and the world about the Wuhan coronavirus, but he was silenced by the Chinese Communist Party. By hiding the truth about the virus, the CCP turned a regional health problem into a global catastrophe. In honor of Dr. Li, our bill seeks to punish foreign officials responsible for suppressing information about international health crises, including the Wuhan virus,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton.

“The Chinese Communist Party must be held accountable for misleading the world about the scope and danger of the coronavirus. Dr. Li Wenliang bravely tried to warn his country and the world about the spread and seriousness of this virus. We should honor his legacy and do our part to hold the CCP accountable for this pandemic,” said Josh Hawley, a fellow Republican senator and co-sponsor of the bill.

Yip Fun-yau of Hong Kong’s Human Rights Monitor said there are also concerns that widespread surveillance used by China to monitor citizens under the aegis of disease prevention could remain in place after the pandemic subsides.

Yip said the United Nations has begun collecting evidence of rights violations from around the world, specifically linked to the pandemic.

“Even if one wave of epidemic ends, the government could use the pretext that it needs to prevent the next wave, and take every possible measure to monitor people’s health and actions,” Yip said.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the rest of the world could be left reviewing the level of globalization in the supply chain.

“When the epidemic subsides, the world will review the situation, but the focus won’t be so much on surveillance and democracy … as on whether key industries should be localized,” Sang told RFA.