L. Graeme Smith: I was wrong that China would face a reckoning for COVID-19

About 6.5 million people have been killed by the coronavirus so far
In this Feb. 7, 2020 file photo, people wearing masks attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong. The outpouring of grief and rage sparked by Li's death was an unusual - and for the Chinese Communist Party, unsettling - display in China's tightly monitored civic space. Kin Cheung/AP Photo.

When the New York Times ran a feature encouraging its writers to admit things they got wrong, we were equally intrigued and annoyed. What a great idea — why didn’t we think of that?! That’s exactly the spirit we want to encourage at The Hub. We know we won’t be right about everything, but we want to admit it when we get something wrong and we want to figure out why we were off base. So, this week, we’ll be borrowing the Times’ idea and running essays from our writers and staff about the things we got wrong. Please, enjoy our blunders.

Some words and phrases I wish I was not so familiar with: mandates, lockdown, viral load, incubation period, flatten the curve, in these uncertain times, supply-chain woes, spike protein, mRNA, Zoom, work from home, social distancing, experts say, and, of course, the novel coronavirus. 

I did not consent to learning this lexicon, and I resent having had to. (Capital-H-History is Events and People and Forces, and it is also a word cloud, dark and heavy and hanging up above and raining down an unfamiliar vocabulary onto our drenched, unfortunate heads.)

We have learned a lot lately. Two-plus years into the pandemic era and our patience is strained with the effort. Our social and civil bonds are stretched. We are angry.1Canadians are angry. So what can we do about it?

All the furor of these last years: at those who imposed mandates, at those who broke the mandates; at those who forced us to don masks, at those who refused to wear them; at those who closed down schools and churches and businesses and events, at those who still gathered to teach and pray and work and protest; at those who moved too fast and those who did not move fast enough. 

We were presented with a problem and we are hostile towards those who did not react to it in our preferred manner. 

But in my own angriest moments—perhaps during the first lockdown Christmas I spent apart from family, or perhaps during the feverish few weeks when COVID finally caught up to me too—I imagined the fallout for those responsible for the problem in the first place: the Chinese government and leadership that allowed the virus to spread. 

And maybe not just spread. There are compelling reasons to believe that the virus was created at2“This Shouldn’t Happen”: Inside the Virus-Hunting Nonprofit at the Center of the Lab-Leak Controversy and leaked from3What happened to the lab-leak hypothesis? the Wuhan Institute of Virology (there are four more words to add to my list).

But still, even if not, this—the disease, the death,4The global coronavirus death toll currently stands at nearly 6.5 million recorded deaths. the lingering ill-effects, the economic loss, the global instability—all this could have been prevented or at least severely blunted if the Chinese Communist Party leadership had acted in good faith to warn the world of the newly developing situation and transparently shared what it knew in a spirit of urgent collaboration. If they had we may well have avoided this tragedy, Li Wenliang would not be a hero, and many untold millions would be alive and better off for it. 

Instead, they covered up the leak in the crucial early days and weeks and allowed the virus to spread the globe.5Early missteps and state secrecy in China probably allowed the coronavirus to spread farther and faster And so here we are. 

I believed that when the dust began to settle and the facts became clear the Chinese government would be facing the reckoning of all reckonings for its actions and inactions that caused and worsened this pandemic.

And yet, I was wrong. Sure, there have been some investigations. There have been some denouncements. There have been some consequences. Not enough. 

There is a momentum and an urge to move on, to sublimate, to forget, to look forward, to finally meet and make our long-delayed future. Today, China is not nearly the pariah that Russia is, for instance.

But we should not be so quick to move past accountability for those ultimately responsible. In some senses, the harm is too vast to really reckon with, the scope of the damage is too large. Tragedy and statistics, and all that. 

But we should try. For posterity, for closure, for the sake of justice, however partially accomplished. 

And, crucially, for the sake of our future too. Disaster, as we now well know, is not an impossible thing. Understanding and accounting for how COVID-19 came to wreck the world will help us to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. 

That, at least, is worth a reckoning. 

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.