Countries With Major Coronavirus Outbreak Clusters Delayed Response Due to Strategic Ties with China: Experts

March 15, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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Italy, South Korea, and Iran have emerged as epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China. Experts said these countries’ economic and political ties with China facilitated the spread of the virus that has now emerged as a global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Wuhan virus appeared at the end of the year and has now infected over 142,000 people around the world, with the number very likely to increase, according to the March 14 situation report of the WHO.

The vast majority of cases reported after Feb. 25 have come from outside China, with Italy, Iran, and South Korea emerging as the major clusters and contributing to the bulk of deaths.

“What was initially seen as a largely China-centric shock is now understood to be a global crisis,” said CSIS experts, Stephanie Segal and Dylan Gerstel in an analysis posted Wednesday.

As the crisis increases uncertainty and leads to what Segal and Gerstel call “financial market volatility last seen during the global financial crisis,” those concerned with the situation in Italy, Iran, and South Korea discussed the China-linked cause with The Epoch Times.

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Medical workers carry a box in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on March 10, 2020. (Stringer/Getty Images)

Italy’s Dependence on China

China is one of Italy’s biggest trading partners and the Chinese are one of the largest immigrant communities inside the country. Experts and politicians believe that Italy’s economic and political relationship with China has contributed to the coronavirus crisis inside the country.

Italy’s civil protection authority said 1,441 people had died due to the Wuhan virus, while 21,157 were infected as of Saturday, reported the Reuters.

Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedove, an Italian politician from the national-conservative Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, told The Epoch Times that the current crisis shows that interdependence on China can be problematic.

“Of course the coronavirus opens a disturbing scenario, it tells us that interdependence from China can be a problem not only from an economic or industrial etc. point of view, but also from a national security, national health prophylaxis,” said Delle Vedove, a member of the foreign affairs commission of his party.

Delle Vedove has cause to worry, over 3 million Chinese tourists visited Italy in 2018, according to Reuters. The first three cases of coronavirus appeared in Italy at the end of January, with two of them being Chinese tourists, according to The Guardian.

This propelled the country to close transport links with China. As the virus and the anti-Chinese sentiment intensified, Chinese companies inside Italy also increased their attempts to change public opinion.

The Chinese consumer electronic company Xiaomi donated tens and thousands of FFP3 masks to Italy last week, according to a March 5 Facebook post on the company’s page. But Delle Vedove said the act contributed to growing fears.

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A tourist visits Milan’s Duomo cathedral, as it reopened to the public for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, in Milan, Italy, on March 2, 2020. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

“We also fear them when they bring us gifts, also because if the coronavirus had not arrived we did not need their masks, and we could have faced the coronavirus if they had immediately told the truth of this demon, born in China,” said the politician.

Corroborating Delle Vedove, two Carnegie experts, Paul Haenle and Lucas Tcheyan, wrote in an analysis last month that “Beijing’s continued opacity has only fueled further speculation over the true origins of the crisis and the extent of its spread.”

While Delle Vedove expressed concerns about the “demon born in China,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella visited a Rome school with largely Chinese students early last month to calm down the anti-Chinese sentiment and show friendship toward China, according to Reuters.

Following Matharella’s gesture of friendship toward China, Chinese leader Xi Jinping thanked him in a message read by China’s ambassador to Rome, Li Junhua, at a concert at the presidential palace a few weeks later, reported ANSA, an Italian News Agency.

“This is another concrete gesture that shows real friendship is seen in moments of need and I am deeply moved,” said Xi’s letter.

For Delle Vedove, this is a cause of worry. He accused China of not being a safe and transparent country and said that China doesn’t respect any rules, only using them to its advantage, despite being a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Iran’s High-Level Contacts With China

While the virus continued to spread from Italy around Europe, in the Middle East it spread from Iran. Experts say the coronavirus outbreak there indicates high-level contacts between the Iranian and Chinese regimes.

Reports say Iranian Mahan airways was continuing to fly between various Iranian and Chinese cities despite the ban declared by the Iranian regime on Jan. 31, thereby jeopardizing the public health inside Iran and the entire Middle East.

A Feb. 2 release on the airlines’ website said that the flights to and from China were stopped at the end of February.

“As @khamenei_ir knows, the best biological defense would’ve been to tell the Iranian people the truth about the Wuhan virus when it spread to #Iran from China. Instead, he kept Mahan Air flights coming and going to the epicenter in China, and jailed those who spoke out,” U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said in a message on Twitter on March 13.

Mahan airlines were sanctioned by the U.S. treasury in 2011 for its links with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military that was declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Trump administration last year.

Manjari Singh, a Middle East expert from the Middle East Institute in New Delhi, told The Epoch Times in an email that Iran’s case is curious because it is isolated due to economic and political sanctions but was still hit by the pandemic.

“Thereby, meaning that it is not so isolated as it is thought to be!” she said.

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Workers disinfect the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran, on March 7, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo)

A report by Radio Farda, a Persian-language broadcaster supported by the U.S. Congress, corroborated what Manjari said. It reported that despite the ban a Mahan flight (W578) flew from Beijing to Tehran on Feb. 21.

“Moreover the first outbreak was in the city of Qom, which is a religious city, so a lot of pilgrimage takes place but it is also the city where most of the Chinese projects are set up. So the Chinese link is there,” said Singh.

Nicole Robinson, a research assistant for the Middle East with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, also told The Epoch Times in an email that hundreds of Chinese students and junior clerics study in the Iranian seminaries in Qom.

Singh said there has been a massive coverup and lack of transparency about the Wuhan virus outbreak in Iran since the beginning.

“Probably Iran didn’t want its trade with China to be disrupted and that’s why it took the spread of the virus very callously and did not reveal it. Cautionary measures were not taken and traveling to and fro to China was not checked,” said Singh.

A report by The Atlantic heightens Singh’s and Robinson’s concerns. It said on March 4 and 5, two evacuation flights carrying Chinese citizens were allowed to leave Tehran for China’s Gansu province and 11 out of 311 tested by the Chinese authorities at the airport were found to be infected.

While Iranian state media, The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), said 724 people had died due to coronavirus as of March 15, Secretariat of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an anti-regime group said in a release on March 14 the number has exceeded 4,500.

Radio Farda, also reported coverup by the Iranian regime on March 9 and quoted the pro-Rouhani Entekhab news website that said the coronavirus death toll is over 2,000 in the country.

Anger in South Korea Over Conciliation with China

As the coronavirus crisis intensified inside South Korea, anti-Chinese sentiment inside the country also intensified, with people blaming the government for not imposing travel restrictions on China during the early days of the outbreak.

Senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation for Northeast Asia, Bruce Klinger, said that while South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants China to facilitate its dialogue with North Korea ahead of the National Assembly elections looming on April 15, people are not happy with it.

“The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the South Korean economy. Critics accuse Moon of being overly conciliatory to Beijing by hesitating to impose travel restrictions on Chinese visitors in the early stages of the outbreak,” Klingner told The Epoch Times in an email.

The South Korean public got very angry with President Moon after he sent medical equipment worth $5 million to Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak. Matters got worse after that when the virus spread rapidly inside South Korea and the public, seeking health services, blamed China.

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Medical staff, wearing protective gear, move a patient infected with the novel coronavirus from an ambulance to a hospital in Seoul, South Korea on March 9, 2020. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Over 1.4 million South Koreans signed a petition on the Presidential website as of March 11, demanding that President Moon be impeached over his handling of the coronavirus and his pro-China policies.

“The more President Moon Jae-in responds to the pneumonia (new coronavirus) problem in China, the more likely he is to be seen as the president of China, not the president of South Korea,” said the petition.

“In Korea, the price of masks soared more than 10 times and sold out, so it was difficult for people to buy masks due to mask shortages,” it said.

The petition also blamed the South Korean government for not restricting Chinese from entering their country. After the outbreak, 5 million Chinese entered South Korea before the blockage was placed on Wuhan.

Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.

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