Thousands of Americans have reportedly signed onto a class action lawsuit in the US state of Florida which seeks compensation from the Chinese Government for COVID-19 damages, as Western politicians increasingly call for accountability.
- The Chinese Government is accused of covering up COVID-19 in the early stages
- But Beijing has repeatedly denied suppressing information
- Conservative law firms and think tanks in Western countries are demanding financial compensation
According to a statement from the Miami-based Berman Law Group, the lawsuit “seeks billions of dollars in compensatory damages for those who have suffered personal injuries, wrongful deaths, property damage and other damages due to China’s failure to contain the COVID-19 virus, despite their ability to have stopped the spread of the virus in its early stages”.
The firm said it “looks forward to fighting for the rights of people and businesses across Florida and the rest of the country, who are now becoming sick or caring for loved ones, dealing with financial calamity, and navigating this new world of panic and social distancing and isolation”.
The US has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 740,000 infections and more than 41,000 deaths.
A separate class action lodged on behalf of Las Vegas businesses is seeking billions of dollars in damages on behalf of five local businesses.
The lawsuit claims that China’s Government should have shared more information about the virus but intimidated doctors, scientists, journalists and lawyers while allowing the COVID-19 respiratory illness to spread.
The Chinese Government has repeatedly denied suppressing information in the early days of the crisis, saying it immediately reported the outbreak to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Experts say that China’s rigid controls on information, bureaucratic hurdles and a reluctance to send bad news up the chain of command muffled early warnings.
Authorities shamed eight doctors for “rumour-mongering” in a national television broadcast on January 2.
An investigation by the Associated Press released last week showed that the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, described a “severe and complex” situation, which he compared to the 2003 SARS outbreak, during a confidential teleconference with provincial health officials on January 14.
It was not until January 20, however, that President Xi Jinping warned the public of a likely epidemic.
“Our lawsuit addresses those who have been physically injured from exposure to the virus … [and] also addresses the commercial activity China has engaged in around the ‘wet markets’ trade,” the Voice of America quoted a Berman Law Group spokesperson as saying, adding that more than 5,000 Americans had joined the class action by late March.
It has been argued that the virus originated at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan.
But Yale University law professor Stephen L Carter said that regardless of alleged culpability, as a nation state, China was immune from being sued.
British think tank, German newspaper call for compensation
A report released earlier this month by the Henry Jackson Society, a conservative British think tank, argued that the G7 nations could sue China for 3.2 trillion pounds ($6.3 trillion).
It claimed that Australia could file for more than $58 billion in damages.
The former boss of Britain’s intelligence agency MI6, John Sawers, also said China’s Government should be held responsible for the pandemic, given its early efforts to cover up the crisis.
“There is deep anger in America at what they see as having been inflicted on us all by China and China is evading a good deal of responsibility for the origin of the virus, for failing to deal with it initially,” Mr Sawers told the BBC.
“Intelligence is about acquiring information which has been concealed from you by other states and other actors, there was a brief period in December and January when the Chinese were indeed concealing this from the West.”
The German tabloid Bild, which is the most-read newspaper in Europe, published an “invoice” for China requesting 24 billion euros ($41 billion) for lost tourism revenue in March and April, 50 billion euros ($86 billion) for small business, and a further 149 billion euros ($255 billion) if German GDP falls by 4.2 per cent in 2020 as projected.
In an “open letter” to Mr Xi, the newspaper wrote that “your Government and your scientists had to know long ago that corona[virus] is highly infectious, but you left the world in the dark about it”.
“Your top experts didn’t respond when Western researchers asked to know what was going on in Wuhan.”
Calls for financial compensation come as Western governments increasingly demand accountability from Beijing.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne over the weekend voiced her support for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus, which she said should not be conducted by WHO, and called upon China to allow transparency in the process.
Her comments came after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he thought there would be a “reset about the way in which the world interacts with China”.
“We do want more transparency,” he said.
President Donald Trump has also been stepping up his criticism of China, saying its Government should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic.
“It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it,” Mr Trump told a daily White House briefing.
He has referenced a theory that the virus was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although the overwhelming weight of scientific research so far points to the coronavirus originally stemming from animals.
The Trump administration and senior Australian ministers have also been overtly critical of the WHO’s management of the crisis.
Mr Trump said last week the US would withdraw funding from the UN agency for being too “China-centric”.