China’s Responsibility for the Covid-19 Crisis – Should we be cautious about pursuing it through the courts? – Nick Kenny

Nick Kenny holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford, and is now studying at the University of Law in London

The UK is approaching 40,000 deaths, the USA has passed 100,000, and the world has reached the 350,000 mark. Recession and severe economic downturn seem inevitable, if not already here. Individuals and leaders have been looking for someone to hold responsible, and around the world blame has quickly attached to our governments whose policies are affecting our lives so radically.

In turn these governments have sometimes sought to shift the blame elsewhere. In the United States, the Trump administration has been quick to brand Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’, laying responsibility at the door of their geopolitical opponent. Is there any legal basis by which this blame game can be played out, and could it result in meaningful compensation for this terrible loss?

Various commentators have in recent months been suggesting that China may have some responsibility, under international law, for the crisis the world is suffering. There seems to be some evidence that China may have, in the early days of the virus, under-played or under-reported its danger, even repressing those who raised the alarm. Oft-cited has been the case of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan-based doctor based who, after voicing concerns about the new virus online, was forced by the police to retract his statements and acknowledge he had ‘severely disturbed the social order’. He sadly died in early February, and his family have since received an apology from the Chinese Communist Party.

Others allege there is further evidence of a wilful failure on China’s part to properly report the virus. It seemingly withheld information from the World Health Organization (WHO), while delaying information about human-human transmission and waiting until February 14th to announce the infection of 1,700 healthcare workers. The latest example is the disappearance of Chen Qiushi, an activist who had been publishing reports detailing and criticising the Chinese government’s response. He was last heard from on February 6th, and to this date his whereabouts and condition remain unknown.

What might have been the effect of this delay? As always, it is difficult to work out the counter-factual, but a model from the University of Southampton suggested that if China had taken stronger measures one, two, or three weeks earlier the number of cases might have reduced by 66%, 86%, and 95% respectively.

Yet, even should these failures be proven on the facts – which the Chinese government would surely dispute vigorously – could there be any legal remedy against the Chinese government?

There do seem to be some rules of international law that China may have breached. First, let us return to 2005 and the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, which claimed 774 lives from 2002-2004. Under international pressure China accepted, along with the other WHO members, the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), a binding treaty designed to prevent another similar outbreak.

Under Article 6 of the IHR, China has an obligation to notify the WHO of a potential ‘public health emergency of international concern’ within 24 hours, and to continue sharing with the WHO timely and accurate information about it. Under Article 7, if it has evidence of an unexpected public health event within its borders that might constitute a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, it must promptly inform the WHO.

On the evidence as we have it, it seems likely that China has not fully complied with these obligations, especially in the first few weeks of January. As Professor John Mackenzie, adviser to the WHO emergency committee, told the FT:

“there must have been more cases happening that we weren’t being told about … I think there was a period of very poor reporting, or very poor communication … There was a period there, I think had [Beijing] been a bit stronger earlier on, they might have been able to restrict the number of cases not only in China but also overseas.”

However, even if there is a case for the breach of these obligations, how could such a lawsuit be pursued? The IHR themselves have a dispute-resolution mechanism under Article 56, whereby the parties may submit to arbitration to resolve the problem. However, the chances that China would be willing to consent to such arbitration seem slim.

There is also some possibility that China’s alleged failings could be pursued at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as one writer, Peter Tzeng, has suggested. Article 75 of the WHO Constitution stipulates that any dispute about its interpretation or application may be submitted to the ICJ. Can a case be made that China has breached any part of this Constitution?

It is possible that China’s alleged delay in reporting the virus may engage Articles 63 and 64 of the Constitution. The former requires that states communicate promptly to the WHO any official reports pertaining to health published in the state, and the latter requires it to ‘provide statistical and epidemiological reports in a manner to be determined by the Health Assembly’. The problem is, Article 63 only creates an obligation to communicate reports that are ‘published’, yet the main allegations are precisely that the Chinese government failed to publish this information in the first place.

There would be similar difficulties in arguing a breach of Article 64. The ‘manner’ in which these reports are to be communicated under Article 64 has been expressly stated by the Health Assembly to be the Nomenclature Regulations (Article 6 Nomenclature Regulations), not the IHR. Perhaps it could be argued that the reporting requirements of the IHR impliedly fall under the remit of Article 64, but it would be difficult to thread that needle.

If we move beyond international law, there may be the possibility China could be pursued in domestic litigation, as a report from the Henry Jackson Society has claimed. Broadly speaking, states are immune from claims in domestic courts under the principle known as ‘state immunity’. In the UK the State Immunity Act 1978 does contain certain exceptions whereby a state’s immunity will be lifted, generally for wrongs committed on UK territory, but it would be difficult to fit a claim against China for its coronavirus response into this.

Meanwhile, in the United States a claim has already been filed in the Florida courts against China for alleged mishandling of the crisis. This claim attempts to get around the US’s own ‘state immunity’ law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), by arguing that there is an exception in that act for commercial activities, but it seems doubtful whether this will work.

However, there is some hope for such a suit from the recent past. In 2016, so as to allow claims against foreign states accused of sponsoring terrorism, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which narrowed ‘state immunity’ in US courts so countries alleged to have sponsored terrorism, like Saudi Arabia, could be sued. Perhaps Congress would be willing to do this again and lift China’s state immunity here, but this is far from its priorities for the moment, and will probably stay that way for a while.

Even if these international or domestic courts did agree to give such lawsuits a substantive hearing, it seems highly unlikely China would abide by any judgment requiring it to pay out. We can compare here what happened in 2016, when China was found by an arbitral tribunal to have breached the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The case was brought by the Philippines, who were disgruntled at China’s expansive claims over swathes of the South China Sea. In 2016 the tribunal made an unequivocal ruling in favour of the Philippines, but China has flatly refused to acknowledge or abide by the decision to date.

Indeed, this is the general problem with most of the legal avenues discussed above. A fundamental issue with international law is that there is no stringent enforcement method when states are found to have committed some wrongdoing. It usually rests on countries’ good behaviour, plus diplomatic pressure when other states are willing to apply it. As China’s disregard for the UNCLOS arbitral award shows, there can be few consequences when a country as diplomatically powerful as China wishes to ignore inconvenient judgments.

There is one further remedy countries could impose on China, however. Should a case manage to reach somewhere like the ICJ, and should an order for compensation be awarded that China disregards, states have the final remedy of ‘self-help’. This is the principle under international law that injured states may, should another state be in breach of an international law obligation (like failing to comply with a judgment of the ICJ), suspend its own legal obligations towards the offending party (Article 49 of the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA)). Such countermeasures may not breach human rights or humanitarian obligations, or take the form of a threat of force (Article 50 ARSIWA). Most other measures are ‘fair game’, however.

Should they wish, then, countries could therefore suspend their obligations under the World Trade Organization towards China, or even, as one commentator suggests, broadcast Western media or the mistakes of the CCP in China.

This would clearly be a drastic move, and would rest on the strength of the diplomatic and political ‘backbone’ of other countries to take these steps towards China. It remains to be seen whether any country would be willing to be so confrontational towards its political and military might.

Perhaps this would nevertheless be possible, however, and perhaps it might force China to pay out to those who have suffered so terribly from this virus. However, it would be a long and tortuous process, taking many years to bring a suit to an international judicial forum, prove the case on the facts, and then successfully enforce the judgment. Stepping back from the legal basis of such a challenge, therefore – would it be a good idea?

Even if a state confident enough to bring such a case could be found and it proceeded to a substantive hearing, the factual arguments would be highly contentious and politically explosive. Though few disagree that a sober analysis of what went wrong in the global response, and how we can improve in the future, would be valuable, it seems doubtful that the contentious space of a courtroom would be the best place to do this. China would no doubt dispute the facts energetically and aggressively. Therefore, proving that China has breached its international legal obligations may turn out to be more trouble than it is worth.

It would also only be possible to claim compensation for loss that China’s breaches had caused. In the Bosnian genocide case the ICJ stressed that an injured state must show a ‘sufficiently direct and certain causal nexus’ between the breach and its own loss before being able to claim compensation. Determining quite how far global suffering can be said, in this legal sense, to have been ‘caused’ by China’s alleged failings would be a herculean challenge.

In arguing these issues in court, China would inevitably use the opportunity to publicise what this endeavour may have aimed to avoid in the first place: other governments’ culpability for Covid-19 suffering. Part of the purpose of bringing China to court would be to put blame at their door. However, the factual arguments, in determining whether other countries’ losses were caused by China’s failures in the virus’ early stages, would surely bring out the vital question: how effective were other countries’ responses to Covid-19?

In the realm of policy responses to the crisis, no country is wholly blameless. Every state can likely have some of its decisions criticised. Having, it seems, successfully controlled the virus, China has in recent weeks seen a dramatic increase in cases imported from other countries that have seen less success. Therefore, if states started suing China for their Covid-19-related losses, China could see it as an open invitation to do the same. It might argue that, if other countries had controlled the virus better, Chinese citizens would have suffered less as well.

In other words, once the door is open to such lawsuits, the allegations could go both ways. This is surely not what any actor on the international stage wants. Adding fuel to the fire of a fractious international order in the crisis’ aftermath would not be in anyone’s interests.

The same goes for the outcome if a judicial award for compensation were, against all the odds, obtained against China. Given its history with the 2016 UNCLOS award in the Philippines case, it seems doubtful it would abide by such an order, meaning other states may have to resort to suspending their own obligations towards China to bring it to ‘justice’.

Would this be a good idea, however? To have effect, such measures would need to seriously harm China’s political or economic interests, such as suspending trade obligations towards it. However, these measures would of course harm the rest of the world that relies on supply-chains passing through, or originating in, China. China would also probably take reciprocal measures in response, causing even further global harm.

Overall, this would most likely isolate China while driving a wedge in the international order at a time, in the crisis’ aftermath, when greater co-operation and negotiation would surely be needed.  The irony is that pursuing the strict application of international law could lead to the very thing international law was designed to prevent – namely the fracturing of the international order and decline in global co-operation.

Perhaps, then, it would be best to pursue remedies for the enormous suffering and loss from this crisis in the diplomatic, rather than the legal, sphere. Certainly, any state thinking of pursuing China in international judicial fora should think very hard about the path it is choosing. Though they may have good legal grounds, the practicalities involved, along with the damage such a route could do to international relations, should not be taken lightly. As in every legal issue, the different sides must be balanced carefully before any decision is made.


Nick Kenny



The Singapore Circuit-Breaker: COVID-19 in a City State

Eleanor Thorp has shared this view of  the successes and uncertainties of Singapore’s life with the coronavirus pandemic

24 May 2020

Singapore did not lockdown officially, we embarked upon a circuit breaker.   Following a couple of months of global praise for its official response with contact tracing and isolation the key tactics, and relative calm from the population, an influx of cases from abroad (returning students & business-people as well as foreign residents) and the arrival of the virus in the foreign workers dormitories punctured Singapore’s confidence and lead to a rapid cessation of almost all non-essential activity.

What is deemed essential has become a fascinating insight into the predominant culture, as have the examples of those who have “broken the rules”.  Initially cake shops stayed open for delivery, as did the bubble tea stands and almost all restaurants – you could not eat in but you could takeway or use a delivery service. When the lockdown was announced, the ministerial press conference spent longer on a discussion of packaging supply for takeout than it did on the closure of schools. Eating out in Singapore is standard for many people almost every day.  The Prime Minister spoke directly to his generational peers a few days into the circuit breaker saying “We want to meet our friends, visit our grandchildren, stretch our legs, and resume our familiar routines — qigong sessions, karaoke groups, hanging out for kopi or a beer with friends. But please understand: We are telling you to stay at home for your own safety. Older people are more vulnerable to the virus.”  A few days later it was reported that some older Singaporeans were given “stern warnings” for continuing to eat together in public areas of their housing units.

As the spread continued, the lockdown tightened.  Shops that sold only sugary goods closed.  The cupcake shop near me sells quiches now, but no cake. The supermarkets dealt with an initial rush of panic buying and now seem calm – you scan a QR code to check in, have your temperature taken, shop in peace,  pay and scan another QR code when you leave.   Apparently 30% of us have voluntarily downloaded an app called Trace which allows the Ministry of Health’s contact tracers to identify who you have been within a few metres of for more than 15 mins if you enter a special code – it will of course only be used if you are found to be ill or identified as having been in contact with someone who has Covid.

The barbers and hairdressers were open – but only for haircuts; highlights and lowlights were inessential. Then they closed, but only for a couple of weeks.  The idea of ill-kempt Singaporeans deprived of a shave and trim was obviously too much for the powers that be.

Workplaces closed promptly.  The Ministry of Trade and Industry conducted inspections and when too many people who could telecommute did not, new regulations strictly controlled headcount and office access.  My own company in the semi-conductor industry has remained active. Our manufacturing and logistics teams have permission to work on site as part of an essential industry, everyone else works from home. For those of us lucky enough to have helpers and space, it’s fine.  For colleagues living with parents and children in small flats where all outside facilities have been sealed off, it is demanding, but I don’t hear people complain.  We are #sgunited and #Singaporetogether, and the vast majority of us support the government’s actions.

A darker side of Singapore has been seen in the response to the outbreak of Covid in the dormitories that house migrant workers – up to 300,000 of them, mostly from the sub-continent, male and under 40. When the virus hit this community was when lockdown became unavoidable and they represent the vast majority of cases.  Whilst the official communications have been compassionate, and PM Lee has assured them and their families of Singapore’s commitment to keeping them safe and looking after them if they fall ill, the reporting of infections has gone through different iterations.   Initially “imported cases” were separated from community spread. Then cases were split: Singaporean/PR (permanent residents), work pass holders (ie white collar foreigners), work permit holders who live in the community (blue collar workers), and work permit holders who live in the dormitories.  Whilst it makes sense to communicate that the vast majority of cases are occurring in dormitories which are now sealed off from the general population, the segmentation of community spread by immigration status has seemed at odds with Singapore’s multi-ethnic, globalized culture, and some of the local online commentary has been insensitive at best and racist and discriminatory at worse.  Indian Singaporeans have debated this issue and its impact on race relations, at least from what I have gathered from friends and Facebook, but the majority have not seemed to question it.  The Prime Minister and his government seems to be doing their best to keep the genie in the bottle, but it is a reminder that Singapore is not always as united as it seems.  In the last couple of days, new cases have been split by “Cases in Community” and “Cases residing in dormitories”; somewhere a communications tsar is watching and tweaking and improving.

The migrant worker data is fascinating.  With well over 30,000 confirmed cases, there are currently only 8 people in intensive care, and we have had just 23 deaths from Covid. Partly is would seem to be because the virus has been kept out of carehomes – which are relatively uncommon in Singapore anyway – but also because the majority of migrant workers are basically healthy, or they would not be allowed to be here. For those who are interested, the data can be explored here:

With the number of community cases falling, we are getting ready for the circuit breaker measures to ease. It will be a slow reopening. A local joke circulating translates “Circuit Breaker” from Singlish to English as “Lockdown”, and “Gradual Opening” and “Phase 2” are also translated as “Lockdown”.   Some businesses will reopen – the wine shop we hope, the flower shop, the cake shops, the nail salons, the furniture makers. Initially households will be allowed visitors – but only 2, they must be related and they must be children or grandchildren. Visiting is for support and for childcare not for socializing, yet.  A best guess is that we will be able to eat in restaurants and hawker centres in July, when pools and playgrounds will likely also open.  We are all strongly encouraged to continue to telecommute – if you can work remotely you must, and if you need to go to work for a specific machine or activity you must go and go home.  Offices will remain mostly empty.

Pre-schools and schools will reopen gradually in early June – all teachers are being tested for Covid before the reopening, and masks or faceshields will be compulsory for all kids over 2. My son hates wearing his mask – he wants everyone to be able to see his smile – and it makes me a little sad to think of the daily interactions blocked by the inability to read people’s expressions.   However it’s less sad than the schools being closed, and kids adapt quickly.  His kindergarten will have the children make faceshields as part of their space exploration curriculum, and I am sure he will love it.  For older students it seems there will be split schedules and the challenges of homebased learning will continue. For Singaporean parents whose children are used to a whirlwind of “enrichment activities” after school, and whose kiasu nature is famous, it’s very challenging.  The children I see in my neighborhood seem happy though – there is far more bike-riding, walking, and badminton going on in gardens than was common before.

For many people, going back to normal means going back to travelling.  People in Singapore travel for fun, for work, and for family (c.1.7m of the 5.7 millions people are not citizens / PR).  It’s a small place and people like to get out – and currently we cannot even cross the causeway. Many people seem to be planning to travel at Christmas – but no one I know has yet bought a ticket.  We are planning travel in hope, not in expectation.  Some combination of testing, quarantine and caution may allow it but currently if you leave and are on a work pass you have to apply to come back and only truly essential workers are given permission.  If you are local and you leave, when you return you will pay for your own healthcare if you fall sick.  Everyone coming in must quarantine in a government mandated facility – there are rumors of quarantine packages available at the Hyatt and the Mandarin Oriental.

Singapore is supposed to have an election soon, and the impending retirement of the Prime Minister has been much rumoured.   His great leadership & competence during this crisis, and the muted but persistent criticism of some of the “4th Generation” politicians who have been in the spotlight may lead to a longer tenure than perhaps he had hoped for.   If you spend some time on Instagram with PM Lee, where he now wears a mask in his profile picture, or listen to his speeches which are routinely delivered in Chinese, English and Malay, you cannot be but reassured by his compassion, wisdom and understanding of his people, whatever your view of Singapore’s political system.  He knows this time is hard for the elderly who want to play mah jong, he knows the work permit holders are afraid, and that people are tired of being at home.  But as he said “we can’t revert to status quo ante. The circuit breaker has worked, and our situation is improving. But the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. We cannot stay closed forever, so we have to get used to a new normal, adjusting our routines to live and work safely despite this global pandemic. Let us continue working together to keep COVID-19 at bay. We will emerge stronger from this experience.”  He’s speaking for everyone.

Eleanor Thorp

Some interesting articles that provide other context:






Another decade, another aspect of living in the United Arab Emirates – now with the corona virus pandemic – Dr Frauke Heard-Bey

Dr Frauk Heard-Bey, the RSAA’s local Honorary Secretary in Abu Dhabi, offers this picture of the impact of COVID-19 in the United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi, 22 May 2020

The jury is still out on how effectively different countries dealt with the corona virus pandemic. Each and every authority is now looking back to the early days of when news of the spread of the virus appeared on their media radar. In hindsight governments and health authorities realise that whenever they reacted – it should always have been even earlier!

Individuals depend entirely on how the authorities in their respective places of residence tackle this novel situation. My husband David and I are very grateful that during this time we are, where we are – in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Four months after the first case, when a Chinese family of four visiting Dubai from Wuhan sought medical help on 23 January, one can look back on an example of mostly very successful crisis management. The UAE with some 9 million inhabitants is not out of the woods yet by a long way, with over 26,000 cases and 233 deaths to date. But a review of the various authorities’ reactions to the situation, which the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March, shows that decisive measures were quickly taken to keep on top of the spread of the virus through the multi-ethnic population.

The UAE is a federation of seven economically different emirates, in which much of the local authority still centres on the tribally-defined ruling families, while the overall authority is underpinned with federal funds provided by oil-producing Abu Dhabi. Daily coverage in the media backed up trust within the general public, that the chief decision-takers, namely the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, coordinated between them the general line of the reaction to the development of the virus in the community. Timely measures were put in place such as closing schools on 7 March and universities soon after. From mid-March arrivals at airports were tested for temperature; sanitiser gels were in evidence at the entrances of clinics, public administration counters, malls and shops; masks were used by many people; public events such as a Music Festival and other concerts, the Book Fair and a Cultural Summit in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Art were cancelled in quick succession. Soon people realised that it was also just a matter of days before malls, parks and other public places would no longer be accessible. To close all mosques was a bold decision. On 22 April it was also decided to postpone for a year to October 2021 the World Exhibition Expo 2020, on which Dubai was pinning so much of its economic future.

Testing many groups of front-line workers and people with symptoms was given absolute priority early on – using ever faster testing kits brought from abroad and later developed locally. By 22 April this was ramped up to 25,795 in one day, performed in many drive-through centres and hospitals – which meant more than one million mostly free tests for one in ten of the inhabitants. By May, testing was declared free for every national citizen (about 15% of the population) and all inhabitants over 50 years of age, along with repeated testing for the high risk groups. Optional testing is available for about £ 75.

The geographical and economic conditions being different in the big population centres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the pandemic soon took a different course in each of these and the smaller emirates. A dangerous cluster was discovered in a densely populated district of old Dubai. The area was completely sealed off, the inhabitants were tested. Infected persons were sent into isolation in a hotel room, to a hospital or one of newly built field clinics. A complete 24-hour curfew declared for Dubai on 4 April was probably due to other clusters in remoter areas, in particular in the numerous labour camps around the huge building sites for Expo 2020. During this two-week-long lockdown, which exempted essential workers, people had to apply by mobile phone for permission to visit the doctor, a supermarket or walk the dog. Police are equipped with temperature sensors – some having them integrated into their helmets. Meanwhile restrictions are progressively relaxing to allow the all-important hospitality business and commerce to resume with strict obligations.

Abu Dhabi proceeded with different, less stringent measures to push the alarming increase in new infections down. There is a less drastic curfew: A very loud signal on every mobile phone delivers a message in Arabic and English to alert the public that all roads are off limits from 8p.m. to 6 a.m. while all public places are being sanitized. This was eased by two hours for Ramadan. Labourers working in Abu Dhabi live mostly in construction camps close to an industrial and business area, which had been moved off the island of Abu Dhabi in the 1970s. In early May, thousands of blue collar workers were screened in a dedicated testing facility in that vicinity. People who tested positive there will be accommodated in a field hospital, where patients have their individual TV screens and earphones in curtained cubicles. During Ramadan there are countless initiatives to get meals to the thousands of fasting migrant Muslims. But thousands of Indians and Pakistanis have registered with their respective embassies to board one of the repatriation flights, which have been organised from all airports in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf – reminiscent of the evacuation efforts in autumn 1990 during the Kuwait crisis.

While reacting to the challenging health situation in the country, the authorities in the UAE did not take their eyes off the importance of keeping the local business community on board in view of the ever more drastic lockdown measures imposed. On 15 March the Targeted Economic Support Scheme TEES worth $ 27.2 billion was launched by the UAE Central Bank to help banks to support retail and business customers during the coming one year. On 13 April the UAE Central Bank met with all banks to urge them to support the private sector with un-bureaucratic loans, and on 16 May a further stimulus packet of about £ 66 billion was announced from federal and local government sources. It remains unclear whether all this help would benefit primarily those companies, with majority national ownership – which is the case by law for most business arrangements. The extent to which businesses, big and small, manage to stay afloat has of course repercussions on the continued residence of millions of expatriate employees in the country.

The UAE has had an impressive track record as an international donor over many years. Abu Dhabi’s previous Ruler and the federation’s first President, Shaikh Zayed, had himself institutionalised sharing his country’s sudden wealth with less fortunate others. Nowadays, the leadership knows well, how to use aid as a trump card for soft diplomacy and to enhance the UAE’s international prestige. Giving aid is not confined to finance, it also takes the form of sending field hospitals, clearing mines, spearheading vaccination against polio or saving endangered species. Dubai’s humanitarian village is one of several places in the world, where aid agencies pre-position material for a sudden emergency. Often the two national airlines offer to fly such material to where it is urgently needed. In this global pandemic the UAE has sent medical and emergency equipment to nearly 50 countries – including 60 tons of personal protective and medical equipment flown to the United Kingdom on 1 May.

The numbers of infected persons climbed alarmingly in recent weeks to 873 additional cases overnight on 20 May. This is probably due to three factors, firstly dramatic ramping up of testing – 1,6 million to date, but also the fact that once the virus had taken hold in any of the many labour camps up and down the country, it proved a growing challenge to reign in the spread. Lastly, obliging the overwhelmingly Muslim population to desist from socialising in the traditional way during Ramadan did not bring the expected results. That is why, together with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, the UAE is mandating – while detailing hefty fines – a near total nightly curfew and the prohibition of family gatherings for several days over the ‘Id festival which follows the end of Ramadan fasting.

My husband David and I will miss very much congratulating our friends on the ‘Id, as we have also forgone our nightly visits to share the traditions of Ramadan with so many local families. But we trust that by following the rules we will remain in good hands here.

Hong Kong

A Letter from Hong Kong – 21 May 2020

As Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick) leaves Hong Kong he reflects again on Covid-19 and Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

It is difficult to describe the Coronavirus situation in Hong Kong when most people in the city remain preoccupied with the continued downward negative spiral of the political situation. Yet now in Hong Kong the Coronavirus pandemic relates to the political situation.

The Coronavirus situation

Hong Kong people have done a remarkable job at minimising the volume of cases in the city. As at 21 May, there have been only 1,064 confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, with 1.029 patients discharged after treatment, and only four deaths. This data is staggering in comparison to London which by 20 May had over 26,000 recorded Covid-19 cases and over 4,000 related deaths.

Almost all Hong Kong residents wear a face mask when outside, they carry hand sanitiser everywhere, and use alcohol wipes to clean hands, open doors, hold train or bus rails. Companies hourly clean all doors, elevators, common area surfaces, and desks. Restaurants, which have never closed, have provided two sets of chopsticks since 2003 (one to pick up food, one to eat the food) and now also provide an envelope for each diner to put their face mask into and maintain table hygiene. Customers entering restaurants and shops must have their temperature taken, an extraordinary feat in a city with around 15,000 restaurants that is described as a “shopping paradise” for the ubiquity of shops and goods to buy.

Hong Kong residents returning to the city from other countries are required to enter self-quarantine at home. Upon arrival at the airport they must report to the vast hall of the exhibition centre and have samples of throat saliva taken for a Covid-19 test, and then stay at a local hotel until the test results are provided the same day (or overnight).

There have been restrictions on entry to Hong Kong since the start of the crisis. From 27 January, no person from Hubei Province and no Hong Kong resident who has visited Hubei Province in the past 14 days can enter Hong Kong. From 25 March, no non-residents have been allowed entry to Hong Kong, and any non-residents entering the city from Macau, Taiwan or Mainland China cannot enter if they have been to another country in the past 14 days. Hong Kong people have not been locked down in their homes, but the territory of Hong Kong has been locked down and cut off from the outside world.

There is no health-related lockdown for Hong Kong people, but there is an increasingly stringent political lockdown as civil rights are continuously eroded by the exercise of increased authority by the Central Peoples Government over the city.

The political situation

The lack of credibility of government officials has led to a lack of trust in the Hong Kong Government. This is illustrated by the government distribution of cloth face masks to every resident. The “CuMask” is issued to every resident who applies, but is described by local people as being an acronym for the “Chinese Underwear Mask” as the masks look like a large bra cup. Such are the divisions in Hong Kong society that some pro-democracy supporting “yellow” restaurants are reportedly banning any customers who wear the government issued mask. A mobile App is available listing around 1,300 restaurants which are “yellow” and another 1,600 that are “blue” (pro-government).
The lack of trust of government officials results from continual acts that restrict freedoms in the city.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has been under great pressure following consistent independent reporting of the protests, related violence, and police use of force. That independence is being lost as the Hong Kong and also the Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK for their reporting. A satirical show has been cancelled after an episode parodied the Hong Kong Police with a police officer wearing a rubbish bin liner and suggesting that the police had plenty of protective gear whilst medical staff did not.  The Hong Kong and Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK after a reporter asked a World Health Organisation official why Taiwan could not be a member of the WHO, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam called a breach of One Country Two Systems by not following the “One China principle”.

This week the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) released their long-awaited report that found the Police had not acted inappropriately in the major protest related incidents that have caused such anger amongst many Hong Kong people. The IPCC noted some minor areas for improvement by the Police, but generally substantiated Police actions during the contentious incidents.

On the “7/21” when villagers and triads attacked people at the Yuen Long MTR station, the IPCC “did identify deficiencies in Police deployment and other Police action in response to the events.” Yet the IPCC says nothing more about this finding and instead stresses that it is not justified to accuse the Police of “collusion with triads”.

On the “8/31” incident at Prince Edward MTR Station in which video recordings show the beating of protesters, the IPCC stated that this “does not show the whole picture” and that there were “many protesters changing their clothes to disguise themselves as protesters”. This does not quite address the point of why it is acceptable to beat anyone who is not armed and not resisting.

On the firing of tear gas into several MTR (underground) stations, the IPCC stated that “most protesters wore respirators” and “the use of tear gas did achieve the purpose of dispersing the violent protesters who had refused to leave the station.” This does not show any care regarding any innocent people who were not protesters who happened to be in the station, or indeed why it is acceptable to breach police standing orders and fire tear gas into an underground train station at all.

All of these incidents were complicated situations with violence from protesters creating chaos that would test the best of any police officers in the world. But the key point missing from the reaction of the Hong Kong Government, the Police, and the establishment in Hong Kong is that accountability is a concept that must be applicable to all for it to be meaningful. The violent protesters are being held to account for their actions, but the police officers whose discipline lapsed and the police management who failed are not accountable. The Government officials who have proven politically inept remain in post waiting for retirement. This remains the basis of division between the majority of Hong Kong people and those who govern.

The past years of discontent in Hong Kong have worsened to the point where the Central People’s Government has caused local people to cease to believe that One Country Two Systems has any reality or meaning. This was emphasised on 21 May when a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, which is meeting in Beijing, stated that the NPC Standing Committee would put forward proposals to set up legal and enforcement mechanisms in order to uphold national security at the state level in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This means that the Central People’s Government will legislate for national security in Hong Kong without the need for the Hong Kong Government to initiate legislation of its own.

Such national security legislation would most likely criminalise activities or calls relating to secession, foreign interference (which can be widely interpreted), and terrorism, all of which can be defined variously by the Central People’s Government and hence cover acts that are interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party. This is not what was envisioned prior to 1997 as how One Country Two Systems would function, and the promised autonomy for Hong Kong has been gradually eroding for the past two decades.

* * *

After arriving in Hong Kong in 1988 to join the Royal Hong Kong Police, marrying my beautiful wife who is from the city, having two wonderful sons born in the city, and meeting so many great friends and colleagues, it was time for me to leave in May 2020 and return to Scotland. It is sad to go at this time when most Hong Kong people are so fearful for the future as the PRC Government tightens its direct control over the city. There is a feeling of despondency amongst so many Hong Kong people as they fear that the One Country Two Systems concept is dead and the future will bring increasing repression by an autocratic Hong Kong Government dominated by the directives of the Chinese Communist Party.

This is too pessimistic. Hong Kong people have proven themselves to be extraordinarily resilient for over a hundred years navigating the arrival of the colonial British, the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the war with Japan, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, and the long years of turmoil during communist rule. Hong Kong has been a haven for enlightened Chinese intellectuals, for dynamic Chinese businessmen, and for free thinking Chinese people.

The Chinese revolution of 1911 would not have occurred had Dr. Sun Yat Sen not been able to study in the city at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese and plot the overthrow of the Manchu Qing with his associates.

The Chinese economy would not have grown so quickly after the Cultural Revolution if the legion of Hong Kong Chinese businessmen had not invested in their motherland, leading to the growth of Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou into economic powerhouses.

The future development of China will not be as bright without the free-thinking Hong Kong people who meet adversity with creativity and energy. It is the people of Hong Kong who are the future of the country, and no doubt they will show their normal patient resolve to navigate the efforts to suppress them.

加油 香港人 !

Martin Purbrick


Pakistan’s corona crisis puts Britain’s in perspective


index1Rupert Stone comments on the impact of Covid-19 in Pakistan

While much of Europe and the US remains in varying degrees of lockdown as fatalities from the novel coronavirus continue to rise, Pakistan could be on the verge of a far more devastating crisis.

With its huge population of around 220 million (the world’s fifth largest), massive slums,crowded mosques, broken public healthcare system and chronically dysfunctional government, Pakistan is a favourable environment for COVID-19.

But the statistics seem to tell a positive story. Over 14,000 cases have been recorded and more than 300 deaths: a relatively small number. However, Pakistan has only tested a tiny fraction of its population, so the real case-load is likely much higher. The World Health Organization recently warned that cases could increase to 200,000 by July. An internal government assessment suggests an eventual tally of 20 million infections.

So far, Pakistan has struggled to respond effectively to the virus, which has been like a magnifying glass held up to Pakistani politics and society, illuminating the country’s major weaknesses, while also highlighting some of its strengths.

The public healthcare system is woefully ill-equipped to handle this emergency. Spending on healthcare amounts to 2.9% of GDP, lower than India and less than half of the global average. According to a recent BBC report, there are less than 10 ventilators per 1 million people. In Karachi, a gigantic metropolis of 20 million, there were reportedly only 600 intensive care beds as of late March.

Moreover, there is a shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors. A group of irate medics in Balochistan province, long a hotbed of anti-government activism, demonstrated against the lack of resources, only to be arrested. It is grimly appropriate that the country’s first fatality from COVID was a doctor.  Since then, more than 150 medics have contracted the virus, and several have died.

Coronavirus seems to afflict the old disproportionately. And Pakistan’s population is quite young, with 64% under the age of 30, suggesting fewer people might die. But the prevalence of chronic medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, diabetes, typhoid, and tuberculosis makes young people more vulnerable. Even before the advent of corona, Pakistan was plagued by infectious disease. It is one of only three countries where polio is still a problem.

Added to that, high levels of pollution have led to widespread respiratory disease, the last thing Pakistanis need if they are battling COVID-19, which can cause pneumonia. In 2019, four Pakistani cities ranked among the twenty most polluted in the world. Lahore is regularly engulfed with heavy smog caused by traffic fumes and fires. There is also indoor pollution resulting from the use of biomass fuel in cooking.

The response of the prime minister, Imran Khan, to this crisis has been slow and indecisive.  At first, he refused to impose a lockdown, claiming that Pakistan’s people were too poor to cope with the economic losses. He had a point: almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, with many depending on daily wages, and Pakistan’s fragile economy was only just starting to emerge from a major balance of payments crisis in 2018-19.

Furthermore, locking down such a big country is no easy task. Karachi and Lahore are both megacities with vast, overcrowded slums. Social distancing is almost impossible in such places, where large families live huddled together, where facilities are often shared and streets are narrow. Worse still, conditions are filthy and there is a lack of clean water for hand-washing.

Despite all this, the provincial governments, empowered by a 2010 amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, ignored the prime minister and ordered their own lockdowns. They were supported by the military, which swatted Khan aside and took control of the crisis, deploying troops across the country. But images of traffic jams and large crowds in Lahore and Karachi have suggested widespread violations of the lockdown measures.

The military’s defiance of the civilian government should raise alarm bells. Pakistan’s mighty army has launched four coups since independence in 1947 and ruled the country for half of its history. Civil-military relations were initially harmonious after Khan took office in 2018, possibly because the generals supported his candidacy. But, with the economy stagnating under Khan’s stewardship, the military has started to lose patience.

Coronavirus could be another nail in his coffin.  The low point came in March, when pilgrims returning from Iran – one of the corona hotspots – were quarantined in makeshift tents. People were bunched together in squalid conditions, facilitating the spread of the infection and defeating the whole point of the exercise. When those quarantined were eventually released, hundreds tested positive for the virus.

But Pakistan is not the only country to respond sluggishly. The same could be said of Britain and the US. India, with its vast slums and population of 1.3 billion, has also struggled. And Khan has done some things right, providing cash handouts to Pakistan’s poor and needy through his ‘Ehsaas’ program, for example, despite the country’s bleak and worsening economic outlook.

Religious gatherings pose a particularly hard challenge for the government. It is normal for Pakistanis to flock to Friday prayers in large numbers. While Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Muslim-majority countries decided to shutter mosques due to the pandemic, Pakistan allowed them to remain open under certain limitations. But clerics and worshippers violated those rules.

The health risks of allowing large religious gatherings became apparent in March, when 150,000 members of a pan-Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat, assembled outside Lahore for an annual meeting. The government eventually persuaded them to leave, but not before the virus had infected large numbers of people, including some from abroad who later returned home.

Now, with Ramadan upon us, the government has capitulated to clerical pressure and agreed to loosen restrictions on mosque attendance, a reminder – if any were needed – of the ulema’s extraordinary influence in Pakistani politics. A group of concerned doctors wrote to the government protesting its decision to open up mosques during Ramadan, but to no avail. In Pakistan, clerics come before medics.

To be fair, this is a difficult situation. If mosques were closed, there would likely be strong resistance. After all, they receive most of their donations during Ramadan. Big protests could erupt, as they have before, leading to standoffs with the authorities. The prospect of widespread social unrest and further economic dislocation, on top of the public health emergency, has made the government understandably reluctant to flex its muscles.

The coming months will be difficult for Pakistan. But it has endured numerous disasters before, whether they be floods, earthquakes, or wars. While the country’s institutions might be ineffectual, its people are generous and will support each another. As Anatol Lieven writes in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, “The state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong.”