It’s Not Too Late To Hold China Accountable on COVID

COMMENTARY China

It’s Not Too Late To Hold China Accountable on COVID

Jul 10, 2024 3 min read

Commentary By

Dr. Jamie Metzl @JamieMetzl

Founder, OneShared.World, and Former Director, Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs, US NSC

John Ratcliffe

Visiting Fellow, Davis Institute

Preparing for the next pandemic needs to be a top priority for America's leaders. An essential first step must be holding the last pandemic's main culprit accountable. Thomas Faull / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Despite these astronomical damages, our government has so far failed to hold China to account for its unacceptable negligence and malfeasance.

Our world remains dangerously and unnecessarily at risk for future pandemics because we've collectively failed to establish accountability for the last one.

By holding the Chinese government accountable today, our leaders can save countless American and other lives tomorrow.

No matter who wins in November, preparing for the next pandemic needs to be a top priority for America's leaders. An essential first step must be holding the last pandemic's main culprit—the Chinese government—accountable.

COVID-19 resulted in over 28 million excess deaths around the world, including 1.1 million in America. As our new Nonpartisan Commission on China and COVID-19 report shows, the financial cost to our country amounted to 18 trillion dollars. Despite these astronomical damages, however, our government has so far failed to hold China to account for its unacceptable negligence and malfeasance.

The strong preponderance of evidence supports our assessment that a research-related incident in Wuhan was most likely the source of the initial outbreak. But our assertion of Chinese culpability holds regardless of how the initial spillover happened, whether from a laboratory accident or, as some allege, as a result of China's illegal wildlife trade. Either way, what followed was a coverup.

Beijing could have contained the outbreak early on by alerting its own citizens—and the world—to the threat. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maximized COVID-19's spread and impact by destroying samples, hiding records, imprisoning journalists, gagging scientists, blocking international investigations, and lying to and seeking to co-opt the World Health Organization.

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That's why accountability today is so important to our safety tomorrow. Without it, every authoritarian state official facing similar circumstances in the future will be incentivized to follow the CCP's COVID-19 playbook of lies and obfuscation.

To that end, our report lays out a blueprint for the next administration to hold China accountable. One of our most important recommendations is that the U.S. government empower American victims of COVID-19 to hold Chinese entities liable through mass tort class action lawsuits.

Establishing liability is an essential tool for fostering accountability in any functioning domestic legal system. The same principle can be applied appropriately in the international context. But while America's Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) provides a limited path forward for potential plaintiffs, the bar for these types of actions remains dauntingly high.

This restrictiveness makes sense in normal circumstances and helps prevent international chaos. But these are not normal circumstances. Our world remains dangerously and unnecessarily at risk for future pandemics because we've collectively failed to establish accountability for the last one.

Congress can fix this problem with a single-paragraph amendment to the FSIA. Republicans and Democrats should work together to ensure that U.S. federal courts are granted jurisdiction over cases where injured American citizens are seeking monetary damages against a foreign state, with the important caveat that the foreign state must have directly through malfeasance or indirectly through negligence sparked a pandemic leading to over a million excess deaths in America and failed to carry out or allow a comprehensive and unfettered investigation.

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Congress should take this action for three essential reasons. First, it would give teeth to ongoing American and international efforts exploring the pandemic's origins that the CCP is currently impeding. Second, it would remind China that misleading the world comes with a cost. Third, and most important, it would establish a precedent encouraging all countries to respond to pathogenic outbreaks with transparency and accountability.

Although these steps may seem aggressive, particularly in the context of worsening relations between the United States and China, we have already lived through the consequences of the status quo. Twenty-eight million people are dead as a result of a totally avoidable pandemic. If we do not take tough action now, future pandemics will almost certainly be far worse.

Our children's safety shouldn't be a partisan issue. Fighting for answers about what went wrong with COVID-19 shouldn't be something we put off until the next pandemic is upon us. By holding the Chinese government accountable today, our leaders can save countless American and other lives tomorrow.

This piece originally appeared in Newsweek

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