Australia piles pressure on China with demand for Covid-19 inquiry

The coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan

epa08351913 Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, 09 April 2020. According to media reports, Payne announced that Australians who were left stranded in Argentina, Peru and South Africa amid the coronavirus pandemic will be given the chance to fly back home with three chartered Qantas flights. Payne reportedly added that the Australian government is looking into similar options to repatriate citizens stranded in the Philippines and India.  EPA/LUKAS COCH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
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Australia on Sunday added to growing pressure on China over its handling of the novel coronavirus, questioning its transparency and demanding an international investigation into the source of the virus and how it spread.

The coronavirus is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has spread around the world, infecting more than 2.3 million people and killing about 160,000 of them, according to Reuters’ calculations.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said her concern about China’s transparency was at a “a very high point”.

“The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that,” Payne told ABC television.

“In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that.”

Australia has managed to get its epidemic under control before it strained its public health system, reporting 53 new cases on Sunday. They took its total to 6,586, according to the health ministry data.

There have been 71 deaths in Australia. The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1 per cent for seven consecutive days – far lower than in many other countries.

Ms Payne’s call for an inquiry into the outbreak comes at time of tense ties between her country and its most important trading partner.

Relations have deteriorated amid Australian accusations of Chinese meddling in domestic affairs and concern about what Australia sees as Beijing’s growing – and undue – influence in the Pacific region.

“My trust in China is predicated in the long-term,” Payne said. “My concern is around transparency and ensuring that we are able to engage openly.”

Australia’s call for an investigation comes as US President Donald Trump steps up his criticism of China.

Mr Trump and his senior aides have also accused China of a lack of transparency after the coronavirus broke out. On Saturday, Trump said Beijing should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic.

China dismisses such criticism, saying it has been open about the outbreak and in warning the world about it.

Last week, Mr Trump suspended aid to the World Health Organisation, accusing it of being “China-centric”.

The Geneva-based agency rejected that, but Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt also criticised it, saying some of its responses to the coronavirus were not helpful.

“What we saw from some officials in Geneva, we think, was a response which didn’t help the world,” Mr Hunt told a briefing.

“We have done well because we made our own decisions as a country.”

Australia went against the advice of the WHO on February 1 and banned people arriving from China. It later closed its borders and imposed strict curbs on public movement.

Hunt said Australia was winning in its campaign against Covid-19 but had not yet won.

“We have to focus on containment and capacity,” he said.

Neighbouring New Zealand, which imposed one the world’s harshest lockdowns even before reporting a first death, has been even more successful in suppressing the coronavirus.

Four new cases were confirmed in New Zealand on Sunday, bringing the total number of infections to 1,098. Eleven people have died, the country’s health ministry data showed.

“I know it hasn’t been easy, but it has been working,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a televised briefing.

She said her government would meet on Monday to decide whether to ease social distancing restrictions.