The Daily Telegraph
China should pay reparations if Covid leaked from a lab
The cost of the lockdowns ran into the trillions and Beijing still refuses to be open on origins of the virus
It might have been a moment of carelessness. It might have been a rogue worker. Or it might even have been done deliberately. Whatever the explanation, there is a growing belief within security, intelligence, and medical circles that Covid-19 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.
Three years of lockdowns, an estimated six million deaths, and a shattered global economy may all have been caused not by a horrific accident involving food markets and bats, but because a virus broke out of a lab and infected humans.
It wasn’t so long ago that proponents of the so-called Chinese lab leak theory were derided as lunatics and Sinophobes. Facebook even censored online posts that asserted that Covid-19 was a manmade virus.
Now, a growing list of official bodies are giving credence to the theory – particularly in the United States. The latest is a report this week from the US Department of Energy, distributed to the White House and Congress, which concluded that the virus leaked from a laboratory, although it cautioned that it did not believe it was engineered as part of a weapons programme. The FBI, which knows a thing or two about investigations, also appears to have come down on the side of the lab leak theory.
In fairness, four other major US agencies are still “neutral” on the origins of Covid-19. But one point is now clear. The lab leak is no longer some wild conspiracy theory proliferating only on social media.
We may never know for sure, because of Beijing’s refusal to be open with the rest of the world as to what happened and the World Health Organisation’s fumbled investigation. But it looks increasingly plausible.
Here is the interesting question, however. If that does turn out to be the most likely explanation for Covid-19’s origins, what should be the response? Clearly, the WHO needs to get its house in order. Western governments might also like to ask themselves whether it was really wise to follow the Chinese model of locking down their populations to control the virus, when we still know so little about how it emerged.
But Covid-19 was also the most expensive thing to happen to the world ever. It “triggered the worst economic crisis in more than a century”, according to the World Bank. Governments were forced to take on unprecedented levels of debt. Supply chains were snarled up, years were lost in education, and, of course, on the latest reckoning, 6.75m people died. We could all spend a lot of time figuring out the precise figure to put on the cost of all of that. And yet one point is certain. It is going to have a heck of a lot of zeros on the end of it.
We have, quite rightly, a long tradition of demanding reparations from countries that start wars. Rome imposed levies on Carthage after the Second Punic War, France was forced to pay 700m francs after its defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, and most famously the Allies demanded huge sums of money from Germany after the First World War.
The principle is simple. Just as you owe damages if, for example, you harm your neighbour’s garden, or scratch their car, so a nation needs to pay for any harm caused by something it has done.
Indeed, reparations are becoming more and more fashionable, certainly within liberal opinion. There is a huge demand for Britain, the US and others to pay reparations for slavery, even though it was a long time ago, and whether the great-grandchildren of the victims are owed compensation is, to put it mildly, debatable. Likewise, the Cop27 conference in November agreed that the major industrialised nations should pay historic damages for climate change, even though none of them knew the weather system was at risk at the time they started building factories.
If reparations are judged to be justified for slavery or climate change, then the case for making China pay for Covid-19 is surely unanswerable.
True, there are caveats to that. We need to be careful about treating China as a hostile state. It already imposed a de facto embargo on some products from Australia, an economy that depends on Chinese exports, for raising difficult questions about the origins of Covid-19. And it is already close to arming the Russian military machine, and no one wants to provoke the country into escalating that conflict.
Nor is there anything to be gained by crashing the Chinese economy; trade is so intertwined that we will suffer just as much as they will. If there are to be reparations, they would need to be set at a level where the Chinese government can afford them. That said, with a GDP of $17.7trillion (£14.2trillion), and with a trade surplus running at $800billion a year, China can afford quite a lot without going broke.
On top of all that, it will be difficult to collect the money if China does not want to pay. But it would not be impossible. For example, a 1pc levy on converting dollars or euros into renminbi would raise a lot of cash. So would an additional 1pc tariff on Chinese exports to Europe, the US or Japan. It would be hard for China to avoid that, and it might even help our own industries claw back some competitiveness.
There are plenty of reasons not to impose reparations. It is too dangerous, or difficult. And yet, despite all that, the rest of the world can’t simply pretend that nothing has happened, nor that there isn’t a bill to be paid.
We should of course wait until it is proven beyond any reasonable doubt. But if Covid-19 came out of a lab in Wuhan, then China needs to start paying for the damage inflicted on the rest of the world – and it needs to start paying now.