Op-ed: Biden, House Members Back Probe into Covid-19 Origins in Wuhan

Federal Officials Attempt to Push Blame from Failed Covid-19 Response onto China with Questionable Investigation into Virus Origins.

(Photo Credit/Clay Banks)

This week, President Joe Biden called for additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 virus. In a statement, Biden argued that “a definitive conclusion” has not yet been reached concerning whether the virus developed from animal-to-human contact or if the virus was accidentally released from a virology lab in Wuhan, China. Biden said more information is needed to verify either of the two main virus origin theories.

The president’s comments come after 18 virology and immunology scientists called for further consideration of the “plausible” lab-leak theory this week. Furthermore, an undisclosed US intelligence report found that three researchers from the Wuhan Virology Institute were hospitalized in the fall of 2019 with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 prior to the initial outbreak of the virus.

Additionally, two bipartisan House bills were introduced Friday that establish a Congressional commission to explore the initial outbreak in China. One bill would waive foreign sovereign immunity “in any case seeking damages against a foreign state for… intentionally misleading the international community...regarding the outbreak...of a health concern.” This will functionally allow families of Covid-19 victims to sue China and seek restitution in court.

The Chinese government vehemently denies these claims and announced they would not cooperate with further WHO investigations in Wuhan. In March of 2021, the WHO released a report on their four week investigation, concluding the lab-leak theory was “very unlikely.” The March 2021 WHO report found that the virus was most likely of animal origins, an extremely common origin for contagious viruses like SARS, MERS, and Ebola.

This is not the first time we’ve heard prominent American politicians accuse the Chinese government of misinformation with regards to the Covid-19. Once written off by many on the left as a Trumpist conspiracy theory, politicians on the left and right are now coming together to blame China for the US’ failed Covid-19 response. If there is one issue that can bridge the growing partisan divide in American politics, it’s using China as a convenient scapegoat.

This week’s developments, which rekindled the idea that China is mostly responsible for the horrible toll of the pandemic, demonstrate the hypocrisy at the core of many facets of American foreign policy. Too often, the US accuses other countries of wrongdoing without confronting similar actions at home. The responsibility and unacceptable death toll from Covid-19 lays at the feet of federal and state officials, not the Chinese government.

In early 2020, then-President Donald Trump functionally touted the pandemic as a political conspiracy to sabotage his administration. Many Republican politicians intentionally downplayed the risk of Covid-19 by comparing it to the flu in order to justify reopening the economy, thereby prioritizing economic gains over people’s lives. Many Republicans encouraged constituents to resist local and state mask mandates, even though masks were proven to suppress the spread of the virus. In Florida, a data scientist, Rebekah Jones, was fired for refusing to manipulate Covid-19 statistics to demonstrate the state was ready to ease social distancing restrictions. Jones also had her house searched and her computer and phone seized as an act of retaliation.

The Chinese government did not have a hand in these delayed and actively detrimental actions taken by prominent politicians in the US during the early months of the pandemic. Countries that swiftly implemented safety measures like contract tracing and social distancing in Africa and Southeast Asia enjoyed low mortality rates. Claiming that China misrepresented the true nature of Covid-19, while many Republican officials spread unfounded conspiracy theories about masks, social distancing, and the Covid-19 vaccine, exemplifies the hollow and blatantly geo-political justifications behind these new calls for Wuhan investigations.

Many warhawks used the outbreak in Wuhan as a launching point for criticisms of China and its seemingly incompetent and immoral Communist Party. In an attempt to undermine the global perception of the Chinese government, Trump publicly supported the “lab-leak” theory, claiming that Chinese reports on mortality rates and deaths could not be trusted. He used racist terms to refer to Covid-19 in an effort to demonize China and excuse the US’ incompetent, inadequate, and ineffectual federal response to Covid-19. Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric during the pandemic awakened deeply rooted xenophobic values in the United States. Hate crimes against Asian Americans rose exponentially as Trump, and other prominent Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton, used anti-Asian language to rhetorically link Asian people with the public health crisis.

Biden, although touting himself as one of the most progressive presidential candidates in American history, starkly criticized Trump for being “soft on China” during his 2020 campaign. Although he doesn’t go so far as to use overtly racist language to refer to Covid-19, Biden has maintained consistency with much of Trump’s foreign policy with China, including expressing support for further investigation into the “lab-leak” theory.

This rhetorical framing of China extends beyond the pandemic. Throughout American history, politicians and the economic elite have used Asian countries as convenient enemies and threats to Western values. According to Lok Sui, professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, “Indeed, the images and discourses of yellow peril have surfaced multiple times throughout the twentieth century, capturing a multitude of ever-shifting perceived threats that range from the danger of military intrusion (i.e., Japanese Americans during WWII), economic competition (i.e., Chinese laborers in the late nineteenth century, Japan in the 1980s), Asian moral and cultural depravity (i.e., non-Christian heathens, Chinese prostitutes, opium smokers), to biological inferiority (i.e., effeminacy, disease carriers).”

It’s important to situate Biden’s actions from this week within the historical context of orientalism and xenophobia. We’ve seen this song and dance before. The US has a clear incentive to cast doubt on the legitimacy of its biggest competitor. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of US-led international probes reaching faulty conclusions that furthered American geopolitical interests and caused untold devastation. I’m not claiming to know the objective truth of the origins of Covid-19. Instead, I argue it’s important to be critical of foreign policy narratives, rather than to accept them at face value.

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