Should China Pay Reparations for the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Should China Pay Reparations for the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has so far been a health disaster of immense proportions. In fact, throughout this century, humankind has not witnessed a health catastrophe of such proportions as this. Over 400,000 people have been killed, and thousands more are still unable to go about their businesses as they normally would. As if these aren’t enough, the economic “deaths” have been just as devastating. International travel has been suspended for weeks now and national economies have been so shuttered that the toll is estimated to cost the global economy one trillion dollars in 2020 and 82 trillion dollars over the next five years.

As is typical in situations where members of the public feel helpless, there has been a lot of finger-pointing to determine who should be held responsible for these losses. Within countries, citizens have blamed, and continue to blame, their governments for their unpreparedness. On the wider stage, the blame has gone almost undisputedly to the country believed to be the root cause – China. And this, my friend, is where the issue of reparation comes up for consideration.

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To provide you with a little background information here, reparations in law very simply refer to compensation made by an erring party to an injured one for any injuries; redress or wrong inflicted on the latter by the actions of the former. Now reparations have long been associated with war and slavery but with the havoc that this pandemic has wrecked globally, reparations have become by extension, an associated issue.

Should China Pay Reparations for COVID-19?
Illustration: United Nations.

The issue of reparations being made by China for the COVID-19 situation is the product of pain and immense outrage at all that we have suffered due to and during this pandemic. Somebody needs to be held responsible for it all to make some kind of sense. And who better to hold responsible for all this than China? For starters, the existence of the so-called wet markets has been singled out as evidence of China’s culpability. Although most scientists balk at stating it with certainty, it is generally believed that the outbreak started from the Huanan wet market.

And if this isn’t sufficient, there is the issue of the ‘questionable’ acts of the Chinese authorities after the novel coronavirus was discovered. The Chinese government reported the presence of the virus to the World Health Organization on 31st of December 2019. Recent information however suggests that the Chinese authorities had been aware of the virus and its contagious nature long before then but failed to notify the global health authorities. As a matter of fact, they did the opposite. Requests for information on what was going on were denied and research or publications made on the matter were deleted.

Doctors who spoke out about the virus were either arrested or forced to issue public apologies for “spreading rumors”. One of those doctors, Dr Li Wenliang was later diagnosed with COVID-19 and died subsequently. From denying its nature to obfuscation of casualty numbers and what appeared to be misinformation about its origins, many agree that China’s diplomatic response to this pandemic has been below par.

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Now all these might not prove that China was responsible for the virus, but at the very least, they show that the State did not discharge its moral responsibility to do their best and help the world fight the virus. Hence the heated calls for reparations to be made. The German newspaper Bild in a scathing editorial has already called on the Chinese government to pay $160b to Germany. For his part, British politician Nigel Farage has urged the same and US President Donald Trump has indicated that the US might be toeing a similar line.

Shopping while social distancing. Photo: Arturo Rey.

The key question then can be summed up as this: Should China pay reparations for the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? From the way I see it, this question is two-fold because whether or not China should make reparations for their role in the coronavirus fiasco is more of a moral and social question rather than a legal one. So, should China pay reparations? I feel that yes, they should. And no, I don’t think this is about money at all.

More than that, I think this is a matter of principle and responsibility because when something goes wrong, at such proportions, there should be a demand for accountability. Thousands of people are dead from this virus and so we shouldn’t just sweep it under the rug. If we choose to ignore the sketchiness of the background information here; what stops another country or even China from acting in the same manner in the future?

If your answer to this question like mine is in the affirmative, then we can tackle the second question together and that is this: since we agree that China should pay reparations, can we actually make them? Many people seem to think we can but I think this is where the legal ramifications come in. In the United States, four lawsuits have been brought by various individuals and groups against China and her institutions. Lawyers in my country of Nigeria filed a suit before a Federal Court in April seeking reparations of $200b from China. Now I am not an expert on international law, but I am not overly optimistic about the chances of these suits.

The basis for my lack of enthusiasm here lies in international law and rests particularly on the doctrine of state responsibility. This doctrine is a customary interpretation of international principles and it pretty much states that every state is responsible for its intentional actions or that of its citizens that affect other countries. I should point out right about now that there has been no demand or payment of reparations for infectious outbreaks since the 18th century. Why is that? Doesn’t the law clearly provide for state responsibility? So glad you asked.


For one, it is difficult to show that the defaulting country actually intended to harm citizens alongside the rest of the world by its actions. For another, it is generally difficult to understand and calculate the direct impact of such infectious diseases, and you need this to be able to demand reparation. For yet another, countries have been reluctant to enforce their rights because they know that the situations might change and they may very well be paying reparations for well, the next disease.

And if the foregoing isn’t enough, The International Health Regulations outlines the responsibilities of member countries in cases of infectious diseases.  It does not, however, specify the punishments for defaulting countries, if any. And it certainly does not state what manners of reparations are to be paid. These are crucial details lawyers are trained to watch out for because only when your lawsuit checks as many of these boxes as possible can you be hopeful about a positive outcome.

The law is not just the issue here; there is also politics in play. Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and the countries powerful enough to demand reparations often have the proverbial skeletons in their own cupboards. The result is that they tend to go mute, take care of their affected citizens and plot out other ways to take their pounds of flesh. What I’m trying to tell you is that when conversations about reparations for the recent pandemic go international, it will most likely bring up the atrocities committed during America’s slave history and the British Empire’s colonial history. Australians might have to confront their historical treatment of Indigenous Australians and Japan may have to account for its actions to China during World War II.

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Slaves cutting the sugar cane on the Island of Antigua, 1823. Image: British Library.

So, what we will see is a lot of posturing with no actual genuine demands being made by some of the world’s most powerful nations. It is far easier for world leaders to leverage this pandemic as a political weapon or a bargain for better trade deals than call out for China’s head on a platter for the simple reason that they also live in glass houses. In all of this politicking, the ‘little guy’ loses as always. And by little guy here I mean the developing countries that have been deeply affected by the virus but have neither the economic might nor the resources to demand for reparations.

While before the law, China’s culpability might be uncertain, I believe it is right they take responsibility. Their actions in the early stages of the pandemic were less than above board. People across the globe have been hit hard by this wrong and consequently there should be a remedy as well. Whether China pays reparations; an honest admission of responsibility to the international community or a televised apology at the very least is up to our leaders and the rest of us to decide.

The irony in any refusal to do either of these is that taking responsibility is actually a sign of global leadership; and this is a position that China has long aspired to.

The dissemination of propaganda and sketchy speeches can only go so far.

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Cover image by zydeaosika.

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