Rajat Sharma and Navya Bhandari
The COVID-19 outbreak is a result of the Chinese Government’s failure to address crucial factors concerning wildlife protection laws, and the botched response by Communist Party officials.
This is Part II of the 10th post of our COVID-19 series.
Linkages between Chinese policies and the COVID-19 outbreak
“What’s in the name?” Perhaps everything. There have been suspicions that the SARS-CoV-2 was being experimented upon and developed as a biological weapon of mass destruction in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which is a biosafety level 4 laboratory. Many have also blamed the development of COVID-19 into a pandemic on the Chinese government’s policies towards wildlife protection and therefore terming it the Chinese Virus. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is an unfortunate consequence of natural evolution combined with human interference. Though allegations about the virus being a weapon of mass destruction developed by the Chinese are in all likelihood baseless, the fact that the virus turned into a pandemic due to the Chinese government’s policies and initial mismanagement, does hold weight. Here is how a series of actions of the Chinese authorities contributed to the unfolding of a pandemic.
China is probably hiding its death toll as it was reported that 21 million cell phones got unregistered post the outbreak. Remember when even till January, China claimed that the possibility of human-to-human transmission is very low? And then, Chinese citizens were travelling the world, possibly infecting locals in multiple countries. What is being hinted by all these indicators is that China has played its masterstroke. Even if the virus was not human-made and originated in some animal species, China was bound by international obligations to inform the world of the correct information at the very earliest. They could stop travel from Wuhan, where it originated to prevent further spread. All these issues still linger in our minds as the lives of millions are at stake, and global health systems are overwhelmed. Still, on the other hand, China has already started recovering from all losses and restored daily factory lives. The world is still on its ride to the low, while China has started climbing up again.
It was around the 10th of December when a seafood seller at Wuhan’s Huanan wet market felt sick. A few days later, it was known that she is suffering from the Novel Coronavirus, which soon gripped the whole town. There were ample concerns as to whether the SARS virus had broken out again. As cases of common cold and fever increasingly showed a common link – the Huanan wet market, the mystery was solved. Soon, a respiratory disease doctor concluded that it was a new undetermined type of Coronavirus. He intimidated this to his peer doctors on a private WeChat group. He also wrote, “Don’t leak it. Tell your family and relatives to take care.” However, much to his dismay, this information took the internet by storm. It led to the beginning of Chinese leadership’s subsequent cover-ups.
At this point, the Chinese authorities intervened, and the government censors did their typical job, even though the Chinese authorities would have presumably known that it was incurable pneumonia and warning people could have been the best step. It was explained that ‘leaking’ this out in public would undesirably influence the National Health Commission’s inquiries about the virus. The doctor who had first sent the information to the WeChat group was summoned by her hospital’s disciplinary committee for ‘spreading fake rumours.’
On the 1st of January, the Hubei health authorities instructed all labs to stop testing and to destroy all samples. On the 3rd, China’s National Health Commission issued orders to all institutions, which said that no information about this new disease could be communicated. This was the reason for a sudden drop in the number of cases in mid-January. The cover-up had to be so strong that Wuhan authorities announced that the earlier numbers were overestimated, and there are only 41 cases in toto. Later that day, the doctor whose post went viral was summoned by the police for spreading ‘false information’ and was cautioned about consequent legal actions.
It was only on the 9th of January that China finally admitted that a deadly disease was being caused by the new Coronavirus. However, they still said that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. By the time China confirmed human transmission, millions of people had already travelled in and out of Wuhan. This was a major lapse on behalf of the Chinese provincial and central governments. Despite having bad memories of the SARS outbreak and having had the opportunity to recognize the novel virus and take strict steps, they allowed such movement to happen. It became a cause of major concern in subsequent days as contact tracing isn’t always complete, and infected people could freely travel without being recognized as possible vectors.
China had lost its sense of social consciousness. It had forgotten its moral and legal obligations to ‘inform’ the world as well as its citizens regarding the novel virus and the potential harm it poses to the community. Had China spread the awareness and cautioned the public about the emergence of an unknown type of Coronavirus, the day it was first detected, knowing that a new virus possibly has no cure, it could have saved thousands of lives. Had China acted more responsibly and restricted all movement from Wuhan a little earlier than it did, the loss of lives and ensuing economic loss to the global economy could have been curtailed. These inactions infer a violation of the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR). Under Article 6 of the IHR, China ought to have informed the WHO of an outbreak within 24 hours of confirmation. Article 7 states that if States have evidence of an outbreak, which may constitute a public health emergency, to communicate to WHO “all public health information.” Moreover, Article 64 of the WHO Constitution mandates each Member to provide statistical and epidemiological reports. However, as experts have pointed out, jurisdictional basis for realizing China’s culpability for these violations is quite weak. Further, there is another practical issue regarding which nation takes up the matter at the International Court of Justice, if at all.
Coupled with this, the very first question which needs to be addressed is why was the Wuhan’s Huanan wet market allowed to operate, even after it was resolutely confirmed that the SARS outbreak was a result of such establishments. It is impossible that such a huge market operates without permits. One possible reason for the continuing operations of such markets could be the cash they bring into the economy.[KM1] [nb2] [nb3] Surely, such an outbreak is like a déja vu for China. This points out China’s inability to learn from past mistakes.
Post the SARS outbreak, there was hue and cry all over the world to ban the Chinese wet markets as they posed a significant threat to human civilization. Many US-based organizations had warned the world of such outbreaks if the wet markets are not controlled. In a wet market, several animals stay in tight compartments. They are under the stress of captivity, which reduces their immunity. This leads to the creation of an environment where viruses easily mutate from one specie to another. [KM4] These can infrequently get transferred to humans. This was aptly explained by biologist Dr. Kelvin J. Olivan. However, if such markets are present all over the globe, what is peculiar about it that makes Chinese markets susceptible to the spread of such viruses? Firstly, its scale wherein a large variety of animals, including exotic wildlife species such as bears, are present in bulk. And secondly, Chinese markets house an amalgamation of traditional livestock and wild animals. This has proven to be a fatal combination. A research study found that some of the bat species used for traditional Chinese medicine are likely hosts of the SARS-CoV2. The research also concluded that such wild bats pose a transmission risk even if there is a permanent ban on selling of live wild animals at such wet markets if the trading and handling of bats continue to further traditional medicine practices.
The COVID-19 outbreak exemplifies the Chinese policy of secrecy and silence. There are certain laws in the People’s Republic of China which helped the situation to worsen. The People’s Republic of China had enacted a law on ‘The Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases.‘ Article 38 states that when an infectious disease outbreaks, the Health Department of the State Council shall take the responsibility of announcing it to the public. It may also delegate such powers to provincial, regional, and municipal governance bodies. Thus, any information to the public can be let out only when allowed by the Health Ministry. This brings in scope for delays and establishes control of the central government over releasing information about epidemics to the public. Additionally, the new type of pneumonia was not on the list of infectious diseases under the Act. According to Article 3, the infectious diseases are divided into Classes A, B, and C, and infectious diseases other than the ones specified in these lists shall be added to by the Health administration of the State Council. If a disease is not mentioned already, it fails to be termed as an infectious disease according to the Act and thus leaves no obligation on the local health authorities to report the same.
All the discussed ambiguities in the law and its enforcement also contribute to the list of inefficiencies of the Chinese government, which made the pandemic a grand success. The wildlife laws already prohibited killing, selling, and purchasing of some 1800 endangered species including the Pangolin. However, to our astonishment, they were still sold in Wuhan’s Huanan wet market. In fact, damage control also seems to have various problems. For instance, China’s latest guidelines on COVID-19 treatment recommends a traditional Chinese medicine whose main ingredient is bear bile, a liquid harvested from the gallbladders of bears kept in captivity at a large scale in China. Such a recommendation can be counterproductive as bile from farmed bears can often be contaminated. Owing to the cautiousness about its international image, China refuses to admit that the virus originated in Wuhan and is perhaps finding new ways to pass on the blame. This leniency in law enforcement, counter-objective laws, and the lax attitude towards the initial response to the virus has put the world in such a situation where even after spending millions, a secure life cannot be bought as the global transmission of the virus continues at an unparalleled rate. Thus, the outbreak reflects glitches in the authoritarian Chinese regime and not biological science.
Conclusion and the Way Ahead
The first upsurge of COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on the world. Of all the past outbreaks, the SARS-CoV-2 has caused the most extensive wave of fear and dismay. World leaders and scientists have predicted future outbreaks if such wet markets continue to function in different countries around the globe, especially China. Undoubtedly, if China does not do something, it’ll be catastrophic. One clear thing is that China is very conscious of its reputation, and therefore, one possible way is to pressurise China is to implement a proper and permanent ban, not just on its wet markets, but also to its wildlife trade, which gives a push to these markets. [KM5] [nb6] Apart from diplomatic efforts, coercive efforts such as taking up the matter to international litigation is another alternative that can be considered. However, considering China’s record on compliance with international law, for instance, the decision in South China Sea arbitration, this seems unlikely to succeed unless China changes laws domestically.
Looking at the origin, China opened doors for wildlife farming in the 1970s when it suffered from a severe famine. Thus, it is evident that wildlife farming is the only source of livelihood for a lot of people in lesser developed areas. The government, therefore, should identify such areas and help people there, shift to a new occupation. If a sudden ban is not possible, the government may consider giving the farmers a reasonable period to shift to a different occupation. Also, the government should not renew any license or permits related to wildlife farming or consider renewing very few of the existing ones. Further, the government must self-introspect on the concerns surrounding promoting the exploitation of animals for other reasons such as traditional medicine, etc. The authority and information must flow from top to bottom as even the requirement for such medicines promotes wildlife farming, thereby increasing the risk of more zoonotic disease outbreaks like COVID-19.
China should strictly consider amending its existing legislation on wildlife protection. While this singular action cannot prevent all kinds of viruses’ outbreaks, banning domestic and international wildlife trade permanently shall go a long way in reducing proximate animal-human connection in the manner that happens in wet markets. Further, a complete prohibition on the sale of animal products in general but allowing them for medicinal use gives scope to bypass the law. Animals are sold under the garb of medicinal use for other uses as well. 2020 is a good occasion for China to change its laws as it will host the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity this year. Thus, showcasing powerful leadership. There are, without any doubt, difficulties in overhauling the entire industry altogether alongside the imposition of strict laws lacking loopholes. Such an action would require not only public education at a mass scale but also certain cultural shifts and a confrontation with the Chinese elite, corporate interests, and underlying official corruption. However, as experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences pointed out, such wildlife trade and farming for all purposes must go, and it should be treated as a public safety issue to prevent future outbreaks.
On these lines, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has suggested certain changes in the Wildlife Protection Law, including some basic ones like in Article 2 and 3. Article 2 bans trade of endangered or rare aquatic and terrestrial animals, and also other terrestrial animals of ‘ecological, scientific and social value.’ As suggested, it should be changed to ‘all terrestrial and aquatic species of wild animals.’ Further, Article 3 should not encourage ‘captive breeding,’ and the phrase should be struck off.
Despite lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2002-03, repeated warnings by scientific groups combined with diplomatic pressure by international organisations, it took another global pandemic like the COVID-19 for China to realize the blatant errors in their economic and legal policy. The world suffers today because the authoritarian Chinese government did not impose a permanent ban on wildlife trading, farming, and wet markets back in 2003 when it had the opportunity to. The international community must unite in this cause against China’s wildlife policies to prevent the world from experiencing another outbreak of an unexplored virus.
The authors are students at the National Law University, Jodhpur.