Mr Xi’s review would remain in the hands of the World Health Organisation, would be conducted after the pandemic has passed and so far does not seem to cover the genesis of the virus. The motion sponsored by Australia and more than 100 other countries calls for an inquiry independent of the WHO “at the earliest appropriate moment”.
It is in the global interest that these two positions are reconciled swiftly. As former foreign minister Julie Bishop pointed out, “we need China’s co-operation and support in order for there to be an international investigation”. Ms Bishop even went so far as to suggest that China should have a leadership role in any such probe.
Mr Xi is clearly keen to play just such a role, using his Monday speech to restate the importance of international co-operation and pledging $US2 billion ($3 billion) to fight the virus in Africa – at precisely the moment when Washington, which had supplied about 16 per cent of the WHO’s nearly $US6 billion budget, has withdrawn its funding and is threatening to make that withdrawal permanent.
Beijing’s eagerness to burnish its credentials as a good global citizen could help bridge the gap over how an inquiry is conducted, and the question of “the earliest appropriate moment” is also negotiable, since many countries’ responses to the virus are ongoing.
As Professor Kelly pointed out, any inquiry must focus on empirical questions, not political ones. The only way to ensure such an outcome is for those put in charge to come from the scientific community, which already relies heavily on shared learning.
The genesis of the disease should also be looked at in terms of science and not liability or punitive measures. To insist upon the latter would be to doom any prospect of transparency.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remarked that “every country and every organisation must examine its response”. In fact, if an inquiry is to command global confidence, each country must be prepared to open its doors to foreign scientists. As another WHO official, Margaret Harris, told The Age: “No country is comfortable about the idea we’ve come to assess them. During [South] Korea’s MERS outbreak [in 2015], it took them two weeks to let us in.”
So far Canberra has struggled to walk the tightrope on this question. Having initially played down any link between the federal government’s calls for an inquiry and China’s sudden imposition of tariffs on barley, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham seems to have decided diplomacy can only go so far. Yet his talk of approaching the World Trade Organisation over the dispute underlines our reliance on international bodies at the very moment they are being undermined by our closest ally.
The federal government should be commended for being at the forefront of pushing for the COVID-19 inquiry. But securing a wider international consensus on that may prove to have been the easy part. Once again we face the difficulty of persuading Washington and Beijing to get on board without capsizing the boat.
Since The Age was first published in 1854, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first. Elsewhere, we strive to cover a diversity of views without endorsing any of them.