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Chinese ‘disinformation’ on coronavirus costing lives, say MPs

The Foreign Affairs Committee is critical of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

3 min read

Chinese “disinformation” about the coronavirus pandemic has “already cost lives”, an influential group of MPs has warned.

The Foreign Affairs Committee singled out Beijing for criticism as they called on ministers to “confront and rebut disinformation spread by foreign powers” amid the global outbreak.

Reports of the previously-unknown coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan in eastern China in late December last year.

But Lia Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who initially raised the alarm about the virus, was accused by authorities of making false statements disturbing the public order. 

He later died of the disease, while Wuhan became the first city in the world to be placed in lockdown. 

In a new report, the committee flagged that case as it said China “should have played a central role” in collecting data on the virus to help scientists plot a “fast and effective response”.

But it said Chinese authorities had instead “sought to obfuscate the data”, accusing it of a “deliberate misleading” of the World Health Organisation that had “obscured analysis in the critical early stages of the pandemic”.

And the group of MPs warned: “Disinformation about COVID-19 has already cost lives. It is essential that the Government issues clear and transparent messages at home to confront and rebut disinformation spread by foreign powers. 

“It must also work closely with allies to present a united front where possible, and to help ensure that vital international research efforts are not compromised by propaganda and bad data.”

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the committee, urged ministers to do more to counter what he called “deadly disinformation”.

He said: “Our best weapons against this virus are science, evidence and co-operation. This may seem obvious to most, yet instead of sharing the information needed to help tackle the pandemic, some of the most powerful countries in the world have actively tried to supress and manipulate it. 

“As the country of origin, China initially allowed disinformation to spread as quickly as the virus. Rather than helping other countries prepare a swift and strong response, it is increasingly apparent that they manipulated vital information about the virus in order to protect the regime's image.  

“The Government needs to tackle these lies with a clear and quick response, working with our allies to show a united front in the face of false facts and deadly disinformation.”

The Committee also called on the Foreign Office to do more to build up institutions that can help to fight pandemics, with the group of MPs calling for a “G20 for Public Health” to ensure “co-operation between expert researchers across the globe can flourish, even in the absence of united political leadership”.

China has repeatedly denied claims its actions hampered the initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The country’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming said on Sunday: “Nations across the globe should tackle the pandemic with great solidarity rather than finger-pointing or be mired in conspiracy theories.”

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