The United States, China and Russia fought bitterly on Thursday during a United Nations Security Council meeting on the coronavirus pandemic as United Nations chief Antonio Guterres told the body that they had failed in their handling of COVID-19.
Guterres blamed “a lack of global preparedness, cooperation, unity and solidarity” for the coronavirus spreading out of control and a death toll nearing one million globally. More than 32 million people have been diagnosed with the virus.
“The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation – a test we have essentially failed,” he told the 15-member body. If the climate crisis were approached in the same way, he said, “I fear the worst.”
US President Donald Trump, who is facing a re-election battle made more challenging by the disease’s spread across the country, on Tuesday demanded action against China for spreading the “plague” of COVID-19 to the world.
The US has reported more than 200,000 deaths, the highest in the world and accuses Beijing of a lack of transparency that it says has worsened the outbreak. China denies the claims.
US Ambassador Kelly Craft reiterated those accusations at the council’s virtual meeting, drawing an angry response from her Chinese counterpart Zhang Jun.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “You have created enough troubles for the world already. … The US should understand that blaming others will not solve its own problems.”
Speaking in English and noting the US deaths and cases, Zhang continued: “With the most advanced medical technologies and system in the world, why has the US turned out to have the most confirmed cases and fatalities?
“If someone should be held accountable, it should be a few US politicians themselves.”
The US “is completely isolated,” he added in remarks enthusiastically backed by his Russian counterpart.
Long-simmering tensions between the US and China have hit boiling point over the pandemic, spotlighting Beijing’s bid for greater multilateral influence in a challenge to Washington’s traditional leadership.
Craft’s attack took many diplomats off-guard.
“Shame on each of you,” she said.
“I am astonished and I am disgusted by the content of today’s discussion … I am actually really quite ashamed of this council – members of the council who took this opportunity to focus on political grudges rather than the critical issue at hand. My goodness.”
Diplomats said they were puzzled at the tone taken by Craft, who had left by the time the Chinese ambassador spoke.
Craft was “very aggressive” after a session that had been “more or less full of consensus,” one diplomat told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
Nancy Soderberg, a former US Ambassador to the UN, told Al Jazeera the organisation was “a microcosm of the state of the world” and that the testy mood of the event underlined how “broken” the global response to the pandemic had become.
“It hasn’t reached the point of no return,” she said. “It’s in every country’s interests to work together and take the measures needed to keep their people safe.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – without naming names – noted that the pandemic had deepened differences between states.
“We see attempts on the part of individual countries to use the current situation in order to move forward their narrow interests of the moment, in order to settle the score with an undesirable government or geopolitical competitors,” he said.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, meanwhile, called for better coordination and cooperation.
“Major countries are even more duty-bound to put the future of humankind first, discard Cold War mentality and ideological bias, and come together in the spirit of partnership to tide over the difficulties,” he said.
The US is withdrawing from the Geneva-based World Health Organization after Trump accused it of becoming a puppet for China during the coronavirus pandemic. The WHO has rejected Trump’s assertion.
“At times, geopolitics have tampered cooperation and hindered our agility. The pandemic has tested the international system like never before,” said the United Kingdom’s minister of state for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. “But now is not the moment to reject international institutions.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also appeared to take a stab at the US when he said the pandemic should not be used to undermine “all the work has been done over recent decades by feminist movements for gender equality”.
“We must be on our guard, we must be watchful, particularly when it comes to protecting sexual reproductive rights,” he told the Security Council.
Trump’s administration has led a push at the UN against the promotion of sexual and reproductive health rights and services for women because it views that as code for abortion. Earlier this month, the US voted against a UN General Assembly resolution on the coronavirus pandemic partly because it included such language.
World leaders were asked to send speeches in advance for the virtual General Assembly so Chinese President Xi Jinping was not able to reply to Trump’s video accusations when he delivered his speech.
The spokesman for the General Assembly, Brenden Varma, said China had requested to circulate its right of reply in writing.