Could China be Legally Liable for Covering Up COVID-19?

With the growing number of deaths and the increasing spread of coronavirus across the continents, the global community’s ire towards China seems to be growing. The Chinese strategy of projecting itself as a victim of the pandemic and extending a helping hand in this hour of crisis appear to have increasingly few takers.

Calling Out China

Moreover, the USA, the UK, France, Australia, and Germany are joining the chorus who are castigating China for suppressing the facts on COVID-19 and misleading their own people and the world, thereby enabling the worldwide spread of coronavirus.

Amid the growing clamor in favor of penalizing China in some way, the US state of Missouri has filed a lawsuit in the US District Court against the Chinese government, the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and other Chinese officials and institutions. The State of Missouri alleges that Beijing’s actions of arresting whistleblowers and suppressing information about the contagious nature of the novel coronavirus have caused “severe damage” to countries globally along with the loss of many lives and economic disorder. The lawsuit also alleges that the Chinese officials did little to contain the spread despite knowing the nature of the disease. Germany’s largest tabloid newspaper, Bild, has claimed that compensation of $162 billion from China should be paid out due to coronavirus.

Will China Care?

According to information after the US Congressmen, Chris Smith and Ron Wright legislation, China and other countries cannot find rescue behind the clause of sovereign immunity if they deliberately conceal facts regarding the coronavirus, thereby US citizens, businesses and the local government can sue governments for the deaths, suffering, pain, and economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit alleges that Chinese communist leaders gave a false picture to the WHO of keeping the spread of coronavirus under control despite the knowledge of highly contagious diseases by mid-January.

According to the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a British foreign policy think-tank, the Chinese government’s handling of the disease and failure to provide detailed information to the WHO breached Articles Six and Seven of the International Health Regulations [IHRs], a Treaty to which China is a signatory and legally obliged to defend. These breaches allowed the rapid spread of cases outside Wuhan, its place of origin.

The International Health Regulations mandates that states monitor and share all information regarding “conditions affecting the spread of the disease, laboratory results, clinical descriptions, sources and type of risk, numbers of human cases and deaths, and the health measures employed” concerning potential outbreaks. The Henry Jackson Society investigation concluded that there is evidence the Chinese Government breached international healthcare responsibilities and China was in a position to minimize the worldwide economic impact of COVID-19. The British foreign policy think-tank estimates that the global lawsuits against China for “patent breaches” of the International Health Regulations over its handling of COVID-19 could run to at least £3.2 trillion from just the nations of the G7. The Henry Jackson Society’s recommendations include taking up the matter with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, International Court of Justice, dispute resolutions through Bilateral Investment Treaties, Hong Kong Courts, and actions at the WTO.

How Much Do Experts Think China Should Pay?

James Kraska of the U.S. Naval War College believes ⁠— based on the International Law Commission’s 2001 Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts and the 2005 International Health Regulations ⁠— that China can be found liable for monetary damages.

According to experts, the U.S. and its allies could sue China before an international tribunal, such as the International Court of Justice. The administration could also seize the assets of Chinese state-owned companies by the legal process and cancel Belt and Road Initiative debts of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America as compensation for coronavirus losses. Seizing Chinese property would allow the United States to use international law to its advantage. Some others advocate confiscating China’s U.S. Treasury obligations that are more than $1 trillion.

Amidst the growing clamor, China has denied any cover-up in reporting the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019. “China was the first country to report the COVID-19 to the World Health Organization (WHO), and that doesn’t mean the virus originated from Wuhan,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the other day.

But with the US President Donald Trump warning that China could face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the coronavirus pandemic and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urging China to be more transparent about the origin of coronavirus, China could have a very bumpy road ahead.