Friday 20 March 2020 4:56 am

A blame game helps no one but fake news is even worse

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

In the midst of a crisis like Covid-19, the ability to remain objective is usually one of the first human characteristics to be abandoned.

It can easily be surrendered to panic as the urge to enter survival mode intensifies. 

Decisions that would have seemed inconceivable days before the crisis emerged suddenly appear rational. Actions that would have been morally reprehensible in normal times, dramatically acquire an animating spirit all of their own. 

The scenes in supermarkets around the Western world have shamed us all. Nations have resorted to mobilising police forces onto the streets to enforce curfews that might otherwise be broken. As the vice gets tightened on what we once thought were our immutable civil rights, and the life is squeezed out of the norms of liberal democracies as we used to know them, it is unsurprising that thoughts often turn to how this crisis began — and whether we could have stopped it. 

The first and most obvious questions are to our own national governments, whose varying approaches to dealing with a situation never before seen, have been dissected by citizens of each country affected. Like a morbid version of Monopoly, every liberal democrat playing this game is trying to reach Mayfair (South Korea), while avoiding Go to Jail (Italy).   

In the UK, the British government’s many perceived failings are being raised by the newly minted epidemiologists among the public and commentariat. The abject reality is that it is far too early to tell which European government has done best and which the worst. 

While this doesn’t preclude any of us from making suggestions about what our government should do better – and it would seem obvious that even greater restrictions on social mobility, a rapid and vast increase in testing and contact tracing, and an eye-wateringly massive government spending injection to save companies from going under would be beneficial — the blame game would be better served some months down the line when it can be conducted empirically. 

There is an obvious merit to leaving debates to the experts in a field as specialised as pandemic management, because that discussion is as passionate and emotive as any that we might generate from a position of ignorance.

But there are some facts about the emergence of Coronavirus that we do know already, and would be well placed to remind ourselves of. These are, of course, the role of China in first the germination, and then spread, of the deadly virus that is wreaking havoc across the world. 

There has been a tendency to denigrate those — particularly President Trump — who have been calling this outbreak the “Chinese virus”.

Regardless of how the disease appeared — and non-conspiracy theorists will incline towards the view that it was the sanitary habits at the Wuhan seafood market that spawned this catastrophe, with live animals that should never have met one another, let alone be eaten together, placed in too close proximity — it originated in China. 

Its spread was only made possible because the Chinese authorities, aware that a new SARS-like virus had reared its head, dawdled in their response even when it had become obvious to medical sources that critical human-to-human transmission was occurring.     

Wuhan was placed into lockdown on January 22nd. But we now know that officials knew of the spread of the new coronavirus variant for weeks before that, and suppressed the news, even going as far as to hold a mass banquet involving the serving of a world record 13,986 dishes during this period, a true monument to hubris. Chinese doctors who raised concerns were swept aside and told they needed to “rethink” their commentary. The appalling delay in action allowed millions of Chinese citizens to spread across the country and internationally.

None of this is to suggest, as some of the more excitably internet conspiracy theorists have posited, that China has deliberately infected the world, or that we do not need to work together to resolve the crisis. It hasn’t. And we do. 

But the Chinese authorities’ behaviour does rather remind of negligence in a way that a restaurant that accidentally poisons its customers might find familiar. The World Health Organisation appears in thrall to the Chinese government, praising its efforts in tackling the spread of the outbreak, while ignoring its culpability in the initial spread. And Chinese propaganda is in full swing, now outputting lurid stories about the US Army being responsible, and suggesting that the virus might have been imported into China. 

For those of us struggling to recover our objectivity, there is a more sensible approach. 

While we must band together now to fight the effects of a 

pandemic affecting us all, the origins and early spread of the virus cannot be allowed to be obscured by fake news propaganda. Anything less will be an insult to all those suffering from a crisis not of their making. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.