On The Origin Of COVID-19 And The Trade Difficulties With China

I have steadfastly criticised and praised Governments and other actors in the COVID-19 pandemic when and where I felt it was due.

I agree with China’s sensitivity over Western innuendo about the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19.

I realise that many will immediately dismiss this on the basis of my friendship with Dr. Shi Zhengli, but I would counter that my logic is clear and undeniable. Moreover it is consistent with many highly regarded scientists including Australian Nobel Laureate Prof. Peter Doherty, that being that these studies are important for future management strategies (to reduce the risks of future pandemics) but were not a high priority given the resources that needed to be poured into managing the pandemic globally. What is transpiring this Northern Hemisphere Summer only supports that view. Prof. Doherty’s comments were even more strident than mine:

the whole thing is a distraction from the next United States election and it is pointless for anybody else to buy into it, in fact it is stupid

Prof. Doherty speaking on Bloomberg Television, 4 May 2020

Australian PM Morrison and other conservative Government officials are attempting to rewrite history and denying the geopolitical aspects inherent in their pursuit of the issue, but they cannot avoid the context in which they called for an inquiry into the origins.

In “The First Victim Of War Is The Truth” published 20 March I pointed out that “in recent days [President Trump] has returned to [pointing blame at China] by referring to it as the ‘China virus’”. And it was in April that Australia through Foreign Minister Marise Payne began pushing for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.

To suggest that the two issues are unrelated, given the close links between President Trump and PM Morrison, is a farce if for no other reason that Australian Government officials and politicians would have known for certain that China, and every other nation, would interpret it as such and so would have chosen to avoid the perception of joining with President Trump if they were at all concerned about China’s reaction.

Truthfully, the WHO team going into China this week should have been a story of scientific interest. Important, yes, but a purely scientific matter. Instead, because of the crass assertions of US President Donald Trump, now almost universally condemned within global political circles as being “unhinged” as if his election loss “suddenly” pushed him into psychopathy, along with the supportive innuendo from Australian Government officials, has turned the story into a fraught geopolitical issue involving limited trust, and suggestions of subterfuge and nefarious agendas.

It is important to note that even though SARS emerged in late 2002 tracking the origin of the virus took exhaustive research spanning a decade. It took three years from the outbreak to determine that bats were the likely original host when a 2005 paper showed that they were reservoirs of SARS-like coronaviruses. It took another 7 years of exhaustive research, painstakingly and methodically analysing samples collected by crawling through pungent guano-lined caves, to determine the exact origin of the SARS virus.

If the reader followed those links, and here is another for good measure, they might have observed an important fact. The scientist that led that research was none other than Dr Shi Zengli. 

Sadly lost in the perceived cloak and dagger game of deception is the one undeniable truth – that Dr Shi is an outstanding virologist and a world-leading authority on SARS-like coronaviruses – thus there was no better laboratory in the world to receive those initial samples from sick people in Wuhan a year ago, and the work of these scientists gave the world the best possible start in combating the pandemic.

I am the first to admit that my views on China have evolved over the preceding 24 months as shown in my writing on MacroEdgo. However, I see few who have been consistent across all important issues as the pandemic has shone a spotlight on societal values and leadership which has permitted or even necessitated deep reflection by all of us. Those few who have been consistent are likely so through inflexible ideology rather than having sound reasoning that has stood the serious tests of this time which I refer to as “The Great Reset” era. Moreover, my evolution has been as much about how I view my own nation and our allies as much as it is about China.

Quite simply, when the facts change I update my views.

Of course the ones with the most challenging decision on whether to stay the course or pivot are the conservative politicians who condoned, if not enabled, the erratic actions of President Trump for the past four years.

I even said in the past that I would not invest in Chinese companies out of concern for human rights and military involvement. I have long had similar concerns over western companies, and I have resolved to redouble my efforts – when value returns to global stockmarkets, whenever that might be – to carry out the necessary due diligence to ensure that I am morally at ease with activities of the companies in which I invest, whether they be domiciled in China or elsewhere. Anything less would be hypocritical of me.

Many Australians seem to come at disagreements, or “spats”, with other nations from the automatic perspective that we must be in the right. We are not always right, however, and we only have to look back at the second Iraq war to see that sometimes our national leaders just do what they want to do irrespective of what are the views and desires of Australian citizens.

I agreed with and supported a reframing of the relationship between China and the West. However, the moment that it was clear that global humanity confronted the enormous challenge of COVID-19, with China the first affected nation, that reframing should have been put on the backburner. What is more, that could have been done knowing that a tremendous amount of goodwill may have been derived from empathetic determination to be a good friend.

We should have done everything we could to help them. If they wanted, through pride, to be somewhat independent in their response then we should respect that for what it is rather than being suspicious. But most importantly, when it became clear that they successfully stamped out the infection in Hubei we should have praised them profusely for their achievement, and we should have gone to them to learn from their experience.

Instead of being a friend to China we seemed determined to show that we were antagonists, no doubt in large part due to the Trump Administration requiring overt demonstrations in support of them. The ironic thing about “big, tough” bullies is that their insecurities drive them to seek support for their actions leading to “ganging up” on adversaries.

Now China is determined to show not only that it does not need Australia, but that Australia needs China much more. I consider that all of the ways China has demonstrated this has been highly intelligent because, to the observant, they have clearly been demonstrating all of the ways that Australia has been hypocritical in the way it deals with China and the rest of the world. 

I will focus on trade issues which China is highlighting with widespread actions against many of our primary products, but will not entirely sidestep the very serious issues over human rights and our actions in theatres of war. I will simply say that it is preposterous to call their social media stunt – yes, a stunt and far from delicate – fake news because it was not a real picture as the same could be levelled at anti drink-driving or speeding advertisements which feature actors. They were making a point, and did not go as far as they could have by questioning why we went into the Middle-East to start with in our longest-lasting conflict ever – that if you are going to talk to others about human rights then you bloody-well had better come from a higher moral ground. But Australia and it’s allies fall well short of that. The point about the Middle-East conflict is all the more pertinent when a comparison is made between the number of innocent bystanders killed in the conflict to those killed in the 911 attacks, and also to compare that number with the number of Americans currently dying daily from COVID-19 because it is out of control and their politicians did little to stop it.

When I worked for Biosecurity Australia on developing import policy for aquatic animals and their products I learned that Australia had a reputation for using biosecurity as a technical barrier to trade which impacted our relationships with many nations including allies. There was always an issue that low-income developing and newly industrialised nations felt they lacked the expertise and resources to negotiate for fair arrangements, and/or fight cases in the World Trade Organisation. 

In reality it was alike a movie where a wealthy individual or corporation, with a huge legal team of Ivy league-trained lawyers, crushes the opposition that can only afford a pro-bono lawyer. Then we had around 80 policy analysts working on risk analyses for a broad range of animal and plants and their products, but in all actuality these analyses moved at snail’s pace (look at the Biosecurity Australia website some time to see the incredibly  long timelines for these analyses).

It was often discussed casually in-house that other similar nations, such as Canada for example, had far fewer staff and a much more streamlined process. Of course, the objective was not really to perform these analyses promptly, unless, of course, under duress of the threat of WTO-sanctioned penalties as a consequence of an adverse finding through their process (such as the Canadian Salmon case which was a major issue while I worked there – of 8 of us then in the aquatic animal unit, I was the only analyst not working on the response to the Salmon finding).

I have spoken about my experiences working for Biosecurity Australia in a number of posts including “Politics And Biosecurity“.

Australia did work at assisting our near neighbours to improve their biosecurity resources, including by running workshops and funding research as a part of foreign aid programs. 

During the prawn import risk analysis (IRA) I recall that in discussions with scientists and officials from a newly industrialised nation, one of the main exporters of prawns to Australia, they stated that they had grown suspicious of our motivation to fund research on biosecurity through foreign aid projects. Specifically they felt that by researching the health status of their aquaculture industry, and being open with their findings including in reports to our foreign aid funding agencies, that they had left themselves vulnerable to this information being used to restrict trade in those products.

They had some justification for thinking that way because, as I have made clear when talking about challenges that I faced in maintaining a career in research science in Australia, in my experience industry-aligned fish pathologists in Australia always challenged the more independent university researchers being clear that they had concerns over trade impacts from disease findings. And that concern was a continual challenge to obtaining research funding on the general health status of Australian wildlife and farmed stocks.

The truth is that all countries have their own favoured areas where they attempt to dodge and delay trade obligations from international agreements. 

I am in little doubt that one of China’s aims in these trade disputes is to expose Australia’s weaknesses that were being ignored when relations were more cordial and forgiving.

Be in no doubt, this growing trade spat is as much about our own failings as it is about China’s.

Unless we come clean ourselves, then there is little hope of the relationship improving.

I suspect that the relationship was much more redeemable before PM Morrison decided to add innuendo to President Trump’s crass assertions on COVID-19’s origins. Without some sincere statements from Australia around COVID-19 and it’s origins, which China will be able to parade domestically as a backdown or apology, and no doubt providing succour to my friend Zhengli, I believe that the relationship will remain troubled for a prolonged period.

Frankly, I would have little problem in doing just that because it was wrong of us to head down this path in the first place, and when so much is to be gained from closer relations. Then again, toxic masculinity is not an affliction that challenges my own reasoning.

Gained value from these words and ideas? Consider supporting my work at GoFundMe

© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

One thought on “On The Origin Of COVID-19 And The Trade Difficulties With China

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: