Relatives of people who have died from the coronavirus in China are demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization (WHO) expert team that is investigating the origins of the virus, saying they are being muzzled by the Chinese government.
After months of negotiations, China approved the visit by the UN agency panel, but has not indicated whether they will be allowed to gather evidence or talk to families, saying only that the team can exchange views with Chinese scientists.
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The WHO panel arrived in Wuhan on January 14 and is holding online conferences with Chinese counterparts during a two-week hotel quarantine before starting work on the ground.
“I hope the experts don’t become a tool to spread lies,” said Zhang Hai, whose father died of COVID-19 on in February last year after travelling to Wuhan and getting infected.
“We’ve been searching for the truth relentlessly. This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes.”
Zhang, who is originally from Wuhan but now lives in the southern city of Shenzhen, has been organising relatives of coronavirus victims in China to demand accountability from officials.
Many are angry that the state downplayed the virus at the beginning of the outbreak, and have attempted to file lawsuits against the Wuhan government.
The relatives have faced immense pressure from authorities not to speak out. Officials have dismissed the lawsuits, interrogated Zhang and others repeatedly and threatened relatives of those who speak to the foreign media, according to interviews with Zhang and other relatives.
“Don’t pretend that we don’t exist, that we aren’t seeking accountability,” Zhang said. “You obliterated all our platforms, but we still want to let everyone know through the media that we haven’t given up.”
Last month, a Chinese citizen journalist was sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on what was happening in Wuhan.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.
The WHO said its visit to China is a scientific mission to investigate the origins of the virus, not an effort to assign blame, and that “in-depth interviews and reviews” of early cases are needed.
China initially rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus, but bowed to global pressure in May for a probe into its origins.
The arrival of the WHO team has revived controversy over whether China allowed the virus to spread globally by reacting too slowly in the early days.
From the beginning, WHO officials have been trying to get more cooperation from China, with limited success.
Audio recordings of internal WHO meetings obtained by The Associated Press and aired for the first time on Tuesday show that even while the WHO praised China in public, officials were complaining privately about not getting enough information.
The UN agency has no enforcement powers, so it must rely on the goodwill of member countries.
Keiji Fukuda, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, has said the visit is an “image-building mission” in addition to a scientific one, with China eager to come off as being transparent and the WHO keen to show it is taking action.
Earlier this month, WHO emergency chief Mike Ryan said it was a “difficult task to fully establish the origins” and it could take “two or three or four attempts to be able to do that in different settings”.