SHANGHAI/TOKYO — Chinese President Xi Jinping used an address to the World Health Assembly to deflect criticism of the country’s actions to counter the new coronavirus outbreak, saying that any nation could be vulnerable to a viral attack.
“The virus does not respect borders, nor is race or nationality relevant,” Xi said in a 10-minutes speech via video at the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation’s decision-making body.
“We have been forced to have extraordinary synergy in the fight against COVID-19,” Xi said. “In China, after making painstaking efforts and enormous sacrifice, we have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people.”
Prior to the meeting, the European Union submitted a draft resolution backed by more than 100 countries for an independent investigation to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”
Under pressure to submit China to a probe, Xi said he supported “the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control” — not the causes of the outbreak.
Xi said the the investigation would would sum up and and address deficiencies, and be led by the WHO.
The Chinese president also called for greater support for Africa to help developing countries there to build capacity and fend off the epidemic.
He said that China, which has poured billions of dollars of investment into the continent in recent years, is helping to build a centers of disease control there using a cooperation mechanism with 30 African hospitals. He did not identify the location of the CDC.
This is on top of a “tremendous amount” of medical supplies sent to over 50 African countries in recent months,” he said.
Calling for greater global governance in public health, Xi offered $2 billion to the WHO to combat COVID-19 and proposed to set up a global humanitarian response center in China to fight epidemics by ensuring easier logistics for the delivery of aid.
Earlier Monday, Taiwan dropped its bid for observer status at the WHA meeting, saying the institution yielded to pressure from China in not inviting the island to attend.
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters that countries want to use the meeting to concentrate on containing the pandemic, and suggested that the proposal for Taiwan to join be taken up later this year. The WHA agreed to this at the online meeting.
“After careful deliberation, we have accepted the suggestion from our allies and like-minded nations to wait until the resumed session before further promoting our bid,” Wu said.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses deep regret and strong dissatisfaction that the World Health Organization Secretariat has yielded to pressure from the Chinese government and continues to disregard the right to health of the 23 million people of Taiwan,” he added. “The people of Taiwan abhor the two-faced behavior of the Chinese government, which claims to care for their health and welfare while actually seeking to deprive them of their right to health at every turn.”
Twenty-two nations — 14 of the 15 countries that recognize the Taipei government and a group of eight led by the U.S. and Japan — had been forecast to back Taiwan’s participation in a vote ahead of the meeting.
While many countries with official relations with Beijing are upset at China’s initial handling of the coronavirus, the pulling of the vote shows that they are not willing to risk political and economic ties to support Taipei’s drive for WHA representation.
Taiwan has failed to win observer status since President Tsai Ing-wen, a China-skeptic, first came to power in 2016. But the island’s campaign this year has extra heft because of its adroit response to the coronavirus, recording only 440 infections and seven deaths so far.
A formal proposal was submitted to the WHO by Belize and Central American, Caribbean, and Pacific states that have maintained ties with Taipei, despite the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching sides to Beijing last year.
New Zealand in particular has angered Beijing for both backing Taiwan’s participation in the meeting, and joining over 60 countries in calls for an international investigation on the origins of COVID-19. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson last week called for New Zealand to “stop making wrong statements on Taiwan to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship.”
WHO officials have come under fire for alleged acquiescence to China. Most notably, U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed the organization ignored Taiwan’s warnings of atypical pneumonia cases in mainland China.
“WHO had determined that the information provided by Taiwan held no value, and it neglected to respond,” Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung said last week.